French Plays Defense

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Mon Nov 8 13:42:09 UTC 2004

>>From Time Europe Magazine,,13155,901041108-749341,00.html

November 8, 2004 | Vol. 164 No. 18

French Plays Defense

With its native tongue losing to English as the global lingua franca,
France is fighting back

What's the French for "get over it"? Don't bother asking the defenders of
France's lovely and beloved language. A decade after the government of
Prime Minister Edouard Balladur passed a law requiring the use of French
in all government documents, business contracts, restaurant menus and
advertisements, the champions of francophonie again have their culottes in
a twist over the threat posed by the rampant spread of English. Opposition
flared last month over a new proposal to make English instruction
compulsory in French schools. Guardians of the language issued a manifesto
calling on the E.U. to make French its official judicial language. Even
President Jacques Chirac has joined in. "Nothing would be worse for
humanity than to move toward a situation where we speak only one
language," he warned last month during a visit to Vietnam, a country where
nearly 1 million people speak French as a result of 70 years of colonial
rule. Are the French out to defend cultural diversity  or their own
influence and prestige?

About 380 million people speak English as their primary language and more
than 250 million as a second language, versus 113 million and over 60
million respectively for French. Despite France's annual $1 billion budget
to promote French internationally, the language ranks 11th in terms of
number of speakers and is flagging. Though it is still the primary
language at international institutions like unesco, Interpol and the
European Court of Justice  and a working tongue at a score of others
English dominates international diplomacy and business, and is the
language used on 52% of all websites; just 4.6% are in French. Across the
E.U. (and excluding the U.K.), 92% of students choose to study English as
a foreign language, compared to 33% for French and 13% for German. Even
French multinationals like Alstom and Vivendi have adopted English as the
workplace vernacular. "This isn't about fighting English, but rather the
use and influence of any language at the cost of all others," says
conservative legislator Bruno Bourg-Broc, leader of a French parliamentary
group monitoring the language's fortunes at home and abroad. "It's about
safeguarding cultural and linguistic diversity by resisting uniformity."

Promoting French language and culture abroad has been an integral part of
the country's policy for centuries. But globalization has diluted French
influence. So has the allure of American pop music and cinema, which have
made English both practical and cool, and a must for anyone hoping for a
career beyond France's borders. So the French establishment is fighting
back in the way it knows best  with passionate denunciations that deny
reality rather than adapt to it. That's why teachers, unions and
legislators are trying to shout down the government-sponsored report
recommending that English be compulsory in schools for ages 8 and up.

The day after that report came out, three senior French officials took the
battle to Brussels, demanding that French be made the official language of
the E.U. justice system. Arguing that French "reduced the risks of
differing interpretations" in a way no other language could, the manifesto
authored by Academie Francaise member Maurice Druon, Paris Bar Association
president Jean-Marie Burguburu and the state prosecutor of France's
highest court, Jean-Francois Burgelin  calls for "all texts of legal or
normative nature engaging the members of the Union" to be written in
French. "This is built on a Napoleonic-era pretension that French is
somehow more airtight than other languages," sighs Jacques Bille, a
professor of business communication at the Sorbonne. "A lot of people in
France just can't accept that English is the working language of Europe."

The best defense of French may be a strong offense. Rather than using laws
and quotas to carve out a safe space for French, why not use the language
to thrill the world? Crowd-pleasing French films like the 2001 smash hit
Amelie fight American cultural hegemony. (Amelie star Audrey Tautou and
director Jean-Pierre Jeunet are back with a World War I film, A Very Long
Engagement.) The foundation of internationally successful writers like
Amelie Nothomb and Bernard-Henri Levy is, of course, their command of
French. Rapper MC Solaar makes crafty, creative use of French lyrics. And
Publicis ceo Maurice Levy has assembled the globe's fourth-largest
advertising network without diluting the agency's French flair. In all
these cases, a willingness to use English hasn't meant selling French
short. "Once you demonstrate you can do that too, it gives you more
credibility when you want discussion to take place in French," notes
Bille. Wise words  but ones certain to provoke cries of "J'accuse!"

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