New whine from sour grapes

edited November -1 in General Discussion
New whine from sour grapes

By Suzanne Fields

Pity the French, who don't care what you do as long as you pronounce it correctly. Their language, eloquent in nuance and precision and once the lingua franca of international diplomacy, has been swept away by the tide of English flooding the workplace, expanding in chancelleries and foreign offices the world over.

You might say English has become the "bete noir" of the French government, and the policy of state is definitely not laissez-faire. For a decade French law has targeted the use of English in business and on the airwaves. Savoir faire has morphed into sour grapes, and we're not talking Beaujolais nouveau.

Last year the Culture Ministry imposed a ban on the use of the term "e-mail" in all government ministries, documents and publications and even on Internet Web sites. The General Commission on Terminology and Neology, which keeps track of such things with the eyes and ears of Big Brother, announced with perverse pride that "courriel electronic" — sometimes shortened to "courriel" — is what Internet surfers must use for electronic correspondence.

The latest grievance was filed by French employees of a General Electric subsidiary that makes medical equipment, who no longer want to struggle to use English in their e-mails, manuals and meetings. They're taking the multinational corporation to court, claiming that those who can't handle the English documents are denied promotion and suffer discrimination. The lawyers argue that the company is in breach of French law that decrees that all documents vital to effective work must be written in French.

If the suit succeeds, the legal precedent will force many companies to comply, in French. A company dealing in medical supplies, including x-ray machines, ought to be able to dictate that their employes learn the language of precision that everyone else uses. N'est pas? The French insist that this suit is not about hurt pride or the result of feelings of inferiority to their cousins in America (or England), but it's clear enough to everybody else that wounded pride is precisely what it's about. From Jacques Chirac down (or up), the French can't get their minds around the fact that France has been pushed aside in world affairs by the United States. National pride took a beating when it was "les Anglo-Saxons," in M. Chirac's words, who rescued France from the Germans twice in one century. (How dare we?) Their humiliation and sense of loss deepened when English became the language of international air travel, even at Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris. English is the language spoken by most of the officials in the European Union.

A Web site of the French Ministry of Culture revels in a page called "Museum of Horrors," which is meant to render Madame Tussaud's museum of grisly murder tame by comparison. The Web site gathers the latest English language advertisements found on billboards and posters at train stations, airports, and the Paris Metro. Le Big Mac, le Mickey Mouse, le drug store. Mon Dieu! Quelle horreur! Once a year, as part of the campaign to promote the French tongue, the "English Doormat Prize" is awarded to identify English offenses against French. Last year the "prize" went to a teacher who promoted the teaching of English so students could get an early advantage in the world of public affairs and business. In 2002 it was awarded to the Paris newspaper Le Monde for offering readers weekly excerpts from the New York Times — in English.

Offenses are being documented now for this year's prize, and early contenders include Dior, than whom you can't get any Frencher, for advertising scents in English, and a European bank president who gave a speech in English.

The campaign against English seems suspiciously like a campaign against all things American, beginning with the war in Iraq, and definitely including le cowboy in the White House. The other day an adjunct professor at Georgetown University gave a talk at Alliance Francaise, which sponsors cultural events for French residents in Washington. Jean-Francois Seznec, who teaches political economy and who lived and worked for years in the Middle East, called his remarks "Franco American Relations and the War in Iraq." It was mostly about how bad the Americans really are. When he equated al-Jazeera, the Arabic television network, with Fox News, his audience, few of whom are likely to watch either al-Jazeera or Fox News, applauded wildly.

Well, you can't blame anyone for trying to protect his culture, but the campaign against English, a language that now belongs to the world, isn't likely to work any better than the Maginot Line. An Internet blogger said it best: "The French are going to have to learn to speak either English or Arabic. And that's that."

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