The French Protect Their Language Like the British Protect Their Currency

This first appeared in The Guardian‘s Comment is Free section on 23 May 2013. It was reprised in The Guardian Weekly (31 May-6 June 2013, p. 48):

The French Protect Their Language Like the British Protect Their Currency

A row over using English in universities has blown up in France, where language is at the heart of the national identity

'The nod to Asterix (left, pictured with Obelix) – the diminutive comic-strip hero who punches above his weight thanks to his cunning and occasional swigs of magic potion – is highly significant.' Photograph: Allstar/Cinetext/United Artist

‘The nod to Asterix (left, pictured with Obelix) – the diminutive comic-strip hero who punches above his weight thanks to his cunning and occasional swigs of magic potion – is highly significant.’ Photograph: Allstar/Cinetext/United Artist

The front page of Libération, one of France’s leading dailies, was printed entirely in English on Tuesday. “Let’s do it,” ran the banner headline. Sounding like a Nike slogan penned by Cole Porter, it in fact referred to a new bill, which, if passed, would allow some university courses to be taught in English.

Inside the paper (and in French), the editorialists urged their compatriots to “stop behaving like the last representatives of a besieged Gaulish village”. The nod to Asterix — the diminutive comic-strip hero who punches above his weight thanks to his cunning and occasional swigs of magic potion — is highly significant. For decades, France has identified with the plucky denizens of Asterix’s village, the last corner of Gaul to hold out against Roman invasion. This is how the French fancy themselves: besieged but unbowed — a kind of Gallic take on the Blitz spirit.

The reason Uderzo and Goscinny’s books resonated at the time of their publication is that they replayed the myth of French resistance in the context of the cold war. This time around the invaders were no longer German or Roman, but American. Asterix’s first outing (in a long-defunct magazine called Pilote) occurred in 1959, the year Charles de Gaulle became president, and grammarian Max Rat coined the word “franglais“. My contention is that this is not purely coincidental.

France’s identity has long been bound up with its language, more so possibly than anywhere else. This may be due to the fact that French is treated as a top-down affair, policed by the state: an affaire d’état, if you will. Language, for instance, is at the heart of the Organisation Mondiale de la Francophonie, France’s answer to the Commonwealth. The flipside of a state-sponsored language has been a deep-rooted anxiety over linguistic decay and decline. The official custodian of the French tongue — the Académie française — was partly created, back in 1635, to counter pernicious Italian influences.

French nationalism was largely discredited after the second world war, because of the Vichy regime and collaboration. As a result, it often took refuge in cultural — particularly linguistic — concerns. De Gaulle’s inflammatory 1967 speech in Quebec, when he took the linguistic battle into the very heart of enemy territory, speaks volumes. “Long live free Quebec! Long live French Canada! And long live France!” declaimed de Gaulle (en français dans le texte, of course). Quebec was repositioned as a besieged Gaulish village, and French as a symbol of resistance — perhaps even as a surrogate magic potion. For de Gaulle, liberating Quebec meant reversing France’s defeat at the hands of the English in 1763.

My feeling is that France is haunted by its lost American future. Had the US fallen under Gallic domination, French would probably be the world’s lingua franca today. Fears over the decline of French vis-à-vis English are exacerbated by the knowledge that the enemy is also within. Although the linguistic watchdogs regularly come up with alternatives to anglicisms — “mercatique” for “marketing”; “papillon” for “Post-it note” — American expressions are often adopted with far more enthusiasm in France than across the Channel. David Brooks’s portmanteau word bobo (bourgeois bohemian) is more ubiquitous here than in Britain. Even more worrying, perhaps, is the French penchant for unwittingly redefining (“hype” for “hip”) or making up new English expressions (brushing, footing, fooding etc.).

The unregulated flexibility of English probably gives it an extra edge in our ever-shifting digital world. As Susan Sontag once pointed out, French is “a language that tends to break when you bend it”. It is significant that many young French speakers today should suddenly switch to English when writing a mél or courriel (if you’ll pardon my French) to a friend.

So what is all the fuss about right now? The higher education minister, Geneviève Fioraso, wants to amend the 1994 Toubon law so that French universities are allowed to teach a limited number of courses in English (which is already the case in the elite grandes écoles and top private business schools). The main aim of this is to attract foreign students, particularly from rapidly expanding economies such as China, India, or Brazil.

Unfortunately, Fioraso committed an unforgivable faux pas — on a par with Sarkozy’s disparaging comments about the Princess of Cleves — when the idea was first mooted in March. She warned that if teaching in English were not introduced, French research would eventually mean “five Proust specialists sitting around a table”. This led to accusations of philistinism on the part of those who believe that sitting around a table discussing the works of Proust is precisely what being French is all about.

Not surprisingly, reactions have been far more favourable in the scientific community than in literary circles. The Académie française is up in arms over what it sees as “linguistic treason”. Prominent academic and author Antoine Compagnon fears that the measure may lead to dumbing down, since most of these lectures would be spoken in “Globish” rather than the true language of Shakespeare. Bernard Pivot, who used to host a top literary TV programme (and belongs to the Académie), argues that French will become a dead language if it relies on English borrowings to describe the modern world. Claude Hagège, a renowned linguist, concurs, saying that France’s very identity is at stake.

Roland Barthes famously described language as essentially “fascist”, not because it censors but, on the contrary, because it forces us to think and say certain things. The idea that we are spoken by language as much as we speak through it is, I think, an important one here: French offers a different world view from English. Today, the symbol of British sovereignty is an independent currency. In France, it is an independent language, and that is indeed something to be cherished.

***

Here is a longer, unedited version of the same piece:

On Tuesday, the front page of Libération, one of France’s leading dailies, was printed entirely in English. “Let’s do it,” ran the banner headline. Despite sounding like a Nike slogan penned by Cole Porter, it referred to a new bill, which, if passed, would allow some university courses to be taught in English. Inside (and in French), the editorialists urged their compatriots to “stop behaving like the last representatives of a besieged Gaulish village”. The nod to Asterix — the diminutive comic-strip hero who punches above his weight thanks to his cunning and occasional swigs of magic potion — is highly significant. For decades, France has identified with the plucky denizens of Asterix’s village, the last corner of Gaul to hold out against Roman invasion. This is how the French fancy themselves: besieged but unbowed — a kind of Gallic take on the Dunkirk/Blitz spirit. Part of the resonance of Uderzo and Goscinny’s books is that they replayed the myth of the French resistance in the context of the Cold War. Now, of course, the invaders were no longer German or Roman, but American imperialists who spoke the tongue of perfidious Albion (or at least a variant thereof). Asterix’s first outing (in a long-defunct magazine called Pilote) occurred in 1959, the year de Gaulle became president, and grammarian Max Rat coined the word “franglais”. My contention is that this is not purely coincidental.

France’s identity has long been bound up with its language, more so possibly than anywhere else. This may be due to the fact that French is treated as a top-down affair, policed by the state: an affaire d’état, if you will. Language, for instance, is at the heart of the Organisation Mondiale de la Francophonie, France’s answer to the Commonwealth. The flipside of a state-sponsored language has been a deep-rooted anxiety over linguistic decay and decline. The official custodian of the French tongue — the Académie française — was partly created, back in 1635, in order to counter pernicious Italian influences. The title of Joachim du Bellay’s Defence and Illustration of the French Language (1549) — one of the first concerted efforts to raise French to the level of Latin and Greek — is eloquent: defence takes precedence over illustration.

French nationalism was largely discredited after the Second World War, due to the Vichy regime and collaboration. As a result, it often took refuge in cultural — particularly linguistic — concerns. The defence of the French language would be instrumental in de Gaulle’s attempt to counter Anglo-Saxon domination by embodying a third way between the United States and Soviet Union. The President’s inflammatory 1967 speech in Quebec, when he took the linguistic battle into the very heart of enemy territory, speaks volumes. “Long live free Quebec! Long live French Canada! And long live France!” declaimed de Gaulle (en français dans le texte, of course). Quebec was repositioned as a besieged Gaulish village, and French as a symbol of resistance — perhaps even as a surrogate magic potion. The Canadian PM countered that “Canadians do not need to be liberated. Indeed, many thousands of Canadians gave their lives in two world wars in the liberation of France and other European countries”. The two leaders were talking at cross purposes. For de Gaulle, liberating Quebec meant reversing France’s defeat at the hands of the English in 1763.

My feeling is that France is haunted by its lost American future. Had the United States fallen under Gallic domination, French would probably be the world’s lingua franca today. Fears over the decline of French vis-à-vis English are exacerbated by the knowledge that the enemy is also within. Although the linguistic watchdogs regularly come up with alternatives to anglicisms – “mercatique” for “marketing”; “papillon” for “Post-it note” — American expressions are often adopted with far more enthusiasm in France than across the Channel. David Brooks’s portmanteau word “bobo” (bourgeois bohemian) is ubiquitous over here, but has failed so far to take off in Britain. Even more worrying, perhaps, is the French penchant for unwittingly redefining (“hype” for “hip”) or making up new English expressions (brushing, footing, fooding etc.). None of this is new, of course. Dropping English phrases in conversation was already the last word in chic for the crème de la crème in the days of Proust, and René Etiemble’s famous Parlez-vous franglais ? was published as far back as 1964. The unregulated flexibility of English probably gives it an extra edge in our ever-shifting digital world. As Susan Sontag once pointed out, French is “a language that tends to break when you bend it”. It is significant that many young French speakers today should suddenly switch to English when writing a “mél” or “courriel” (if you’ll pardon my French) to a friend.

So what is all the fuss about right now? Higher Education Minister Geneviève Fioraso wants to amend the 1994 Toubon law (or “loi all good” as it is sometimes called) so that French universities are allowed to teach a limited number of courses in English (which is already the case in the elite grandes écoles and top private business schools). The main aim of this reform is to attract foreign students, particularly from rapidly-expanding economies such as China, India, or Brazil. Unfortunately, Ms Fioraso committed an unforgivable faux pas — on a par with Sarkozy’s disparaging comments about the Princess of Cleves — when the idea was first mooted in March. She warned that if teaching in English were not introduced, French research would eventually mean “five Proust specialists sitting around a table”. This led to accusations of philistinism on the part of those who believe that sitting around a table discussing the works of Proust is precisely what being French is all about.

Not surprisingly, reactions have been far more favourable in the scientific community than in literary circles. The Académie française is up in arms over what it sees as “linguistic treason”. Prominent academic and author Antoine Compagnon fears that the measure may lead to dumbing down, since most of these lectures would be spoken in “Globish” rather than the true language of Shakespeare. Bernard Pivot, who used to host a top literary TV programme (and belongs to the Académie), argues that French will become a dead language if it relies on English borrowings to describe the modern world. Claude Hagège, a renowned linguist, concurs, saying that France’s very identity is at stake.

Roland Barthes famously described language as essentially “fascist”, not because it censors but, on the contrary, because it forces us to think and say certain things. The idea that we are spoken by language as much as we speak through it is, I think, an important one here: French offers a different world view from English. Today, the symbol of British sovereignty is an independent currency. In France, it is an independent language, and that is indeed something to be cherished.

[* In The Guardian Weekly, this article appeared under the following heading: “The French Are Right to Protect their Language: It Runs to the Heart of their Identity and Offers a Different Worldview to English”.]

A Besieged Gaulish Village

I have written a piece on the current French row over the introduction of courses in English at university. It appears in the Guardian‘s Comment is Free section, and you can read it here:

Inside the paper (and in French), the editorialists urged their compatriots to “stop behaving like the last representatives of a besieged Gaulish village”. The nod to Asterix — the diminutive comic-strip hero who punches above his weight thanks to his cunning and occasional swigs of magic potion — is highly significant. For decades, France has identified with the plucky denizens of Asterix’s village, the last corner of Gaul to hold out against Roman invasion. This is how the French fancy themselves: besieged but unbowed — a kind of Gallic take on the Blitz spirit.

La Rentrée Littéraire Redux

This appeared in Guardian Books on 9 October 2012:

La Rentrée Littéraire Redux

The French books world’s demented annual commercial knockout context shows little sign of going away

[Eternal return… Parisian book buyers. Photograph: Alamy]

Much ink was expended, earlier this year, on the subject of parenting in France. For better or worse — usually the former — it was deemed far less “child-centric” than across the Channel. There is, however, at least one area where French kids set the agenda: the agenda (French for “diary”) itself.

Although nominally in December, the end of the year really occurs in early summer, when schools break up for a two-month hiatus. By August, Paris feels eerily empty, in a way that London, for instance, never does. At times, it almost looks like the local population has been wiped out by a neutron bomb, leaving hordes of tourists roaming around a ghost town. Most of those who cannot afford to go away are relegated — out of sight, out of mind and out of work — to the infamous banlieues, which, owing to some strange optical illusion, only become visible when they disappear in flames.

By the same token, it is September, and not January, which marks the true beginning of the year; a beginning that spells eternal recurrence rather than renaissance. “La rentrée” — the back-to-school season extended to the entire populace — never fails to remind me of Joey Kowalski, the narrator of Gombrowicz’s Ferdydurke, who, despite being 30 years old, is marched off to school as though he had been caught playing truant. “La rentrée” is the bell that signals the end of playtime; the restoration that follows revolution. In an annual re-enactment of the “retour à la normale” after the carnival of May 1968, everybody returns to the old “train-train quotidien”: the daily grind of “métro, boulot, dodo” (commute, work, bed — an expression derived from a poem by Pierre Béarn). A vague sense that real life is elsewhere (as Rimbaud never quite put it) lingers a while, before fading like suntans and memories of holiday romances.

The start of the new school year (“la rentrée scolaire”) coincides, give or take a few weeks, with the opening of the publishing season (“la rentrée littéraire”). In fact, both rentrées go together like cheese and wine, Alsace and Lorraine, or Deleuze and Guattari. This is not purely coincidental, since publishers are largely dependent upon education for the grooming of future generations of book buyers. The “rentrée littéraire” is the equivalent of cramming for your finals — a tome-intensive blitzkrieg geared towards the autumn literary prizes and subsequent Christmas sales. The season kicks off mid-August, really kicks in mid-October, and climaxes in November, when most book prizes are awarded: the illustrious Prix Goncourt (hot on the heels of the Grand Prix de l’Académie française in October) but also the Prix Décembre, Femina, Flore, Interallié, Médicis, Renaudot, and a few others besides. The major publishing houses tend to carpet bomb, chucking as many titles at these awards as they can, while the indies have no other choice but to go for surgical hits, on a wing and a press release.

So far, this year’s vintage has been pretty much business as usual, apart from the growing popularity of ebooks. At season’s close, 646 novels will have been released (compared with 654 in 2011 and 701 in 2010). If French fiction is down a little, the number of foreign titles remains constant (220 against 219 last year). As a result of the uncertain economic climate, there are fewer debuts (69 against 74) and more mass-market print runs (including Fifty Shades of Grey and the new JK Rowling). Pursuing a trend observed over the past few years, many of the heavyweights (Jean Echenoz, Patrick Modiano, Philippe Sollers et al.) have been held over until mid-October in order to heighten anticipation and maximize impact upon November’s book prizes.

Some of this season’s most hotly touted titles have a distinct whiff of déjà vu. There’s the new Houellebecq (Aurélien Bellenger, whose first book was an essay on the old Houellebecq). There’s the presidential campaign, which is fast becoming a sub-genre, with no less than seven books devoted to the latest instalment (including a non-fiction novelisation by HHhH author Laurent Binet). And then there’s the obligatory scandal which, this year, comes courtesy of Richard Millet (“l’affaire Millet”!) and his “literary praise” of mass murderer Anders Breivik.

The best take on the “rentrée littéraire” appears in Ecclesiastes: “of making many books there is no end”. In no other country is so much fiction published in such a short period of time. With hundreds of novels competing for a dozen prizes or so, most are destined to sink without trace — unsold and unread. Industry observers claim that if a debut novel has not caused a buzz by mid-September, it’s (French) toast. The result is a book glut comparable to Europe’s wine lakes and butter mountains.

David Meulemans, who heads indie press Aux Forges de Vulcain, made a few waves recently by announcing that he would not be taking part in this year’s rentrée. He described the publishing season as “mass commercial suicide”: a launch pad for prizes virtually no one stands a chance of ever winning. Sylvain Bourmeau — who praises the extraordinary diversity of publications on offer (belying, in his view, the French literati’s reputation for navel-gazing) — acknowledges, in Libération, that the rentrée is indeed a “weird national lottery”. For the past decade, Pierre Astier has been one of its most vocal critics. This former indie publisher, who went on to launch one of France’s first literary agencies, highlights the hypocrisy of a system — controlled by an old boys’ network — that fosters cut-throat competition without establishing a level playing field. Conflicts of interest abound; nepotism is rife. Being life members, the Goncourt judges are endowed with godly powers. Four of them even have books in the running for this year’s awards, which are usually carved up among the major publishing houses anyway. Astier also criticises the lack of openness to francophone writers, which he interprets as a sign that decolonisation has not gone far enough.

Although its quaint customs are often parodied (as in Patrick Besson’s Ma rentrée littéraire), the publishing season, is still widely seen as an instance of France’s cultural exceptionalism; its “droit à la différence” — or even différance.

All the Latest

The summer 2010 issue of the brilliant Nude Magazine (issue 16) is out now, and it contains an article by yours truly about Jacno, the founder of the Stinky Toys who went on to become a pioneer of French electropop:

“A look back at the too short life of Denis Quillard (aka Jacno), the artistocratic pop dandy, former Stinky Toy and pioneer of French electronic music.”

Why a 17th-Century Novel is a Hot Political Issue in France

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This appeared in Guardian Books on 31 March 2009:

Why a 17th-Century Novel is a Hot Poltical Issue in France

Nicolas Sarkozy’s well-publicised scorn has turned The Princess of Cleves into a focus for opponents of the French president

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During a meeting back in February 2006, Nicolas Sarkozy took the opportunity to mock the “sadist or idiot” who had seen fit to include questions about a 17th-century novel in an exam for public sector workers. “When was the last time you asked a counter clerk what she thought of The Princess of Cleves?” he enquired, playing to the gallery. Cue laughter from the audience. The future president’s point was a moot one: just because an acquaintance with the classics isn’t strictly necessary to perform administrative tasks — menial or otherwise — it doesn’t mean it should be discouraged. What was doubtless intended as a populist plea for more common sense came across­ as haughty philistinism. Should time and money be wasted teaching counter clerks to read above their station? Do these people want to end up crushed by a bookcase à la Leonard Bast? Let them eat Da Vinci Code!

But the presidential aspersions cast on Madame de La Fayette‘s masterpiece have kept coming. Last year, for instance, Sarkozy declared that voluntary work should be taken into account when civil servants are considered for promotion. It’s just as important as knowing The Princess of Cleves off by heart, the clearly traumatised head of state argued. He went on to confess, in a joking tone, that he had “suffered” at the pages of that confounded novel as a schoolboy, which prompted Régis Jauffret — a famous author — to surmise that his mother must have soundly spanked him for getting a poor mark on the subject. Le Figaro, meanwhile, suggested that the president’s aversion may be due to the fact that his personal secretary (allegedly) failed an exam because she was incapable of saying who had written the book — ironic, given that its authorship remains shrouded in mystery (it’s now generally thought to be a collective work orchestrated by Mme de La Fayette).

So what’s the story with this book, so famous in France, so little-known elsewhere? The Princess of Cleves is undoubtedly a literary landmark. It is widely regarded as one of the first historical and psychological novels; indeed, it’s one of the first novels full stop. Its intellectual take on matters of the heart made it a template for much French literature and cinema. Yet, in spite of its brilliance, it is also a resolutely old-fashioned tale of unconsummated passion in which duty triumphs over love — one that most French people are force-fed at school and are happy never to read again. Until now, that is.

Sarkozy’s personal vendetta — cloaked in anti-elitist demagoguery — has managed to turn The Princess of Cleves into an unlikely symbol of political resistance. In the eyes of many, it now exemplifies the sheer effusion of a culture that cannot be squared with this government’s vulgar mercantile ethos. Christophe Honoré was so incensed by the president’s declarations that he adapted the supposedly irrelevant novel into a teen movie set in a Parisian lycée (La Belle Personne). University lecturers and students, who have been on strike against governmental reforms for the past two months, have organised several marathon readings up and down the country. The most prominent one so far was staged outside the Panthéon in Paris: Louis Garrel, who played a leading part in Honoré’s film, was among the numerous people who took turns to read five-minute extracts until the last sentence was uttered more than six hours later. The book has been claimed by sundry protesters and declaimed through megaphones during recent demonstrations where banners bearing messages of support —­ “Free the Princess of Cleves” —­ also flourished. A pastiche of the novel, drawing parallels between Henry II‘s lavish court life and Sarkozy’s bling-bling presidential style, is doing the rounds in academic circles. Heavyweight politicians (Ségolène Royal, François Bayrou) and intellectuals (Régis Debray, Elisabeth Badinter) have publicly sided with Mme de La Fayette. On television, Jauffret invited every French citizen to send a copy of the book to the Élysee Palace in protest at Sarkozy’s “glorification of ignorance”. The novel even sold out at the recent Paris book fair and more than 2,000 “I’m reading The Princess of Cleves” badges were snapped up in record time (for those who can’t lay their hands on one of them, you can join the inevitable Facebook group). When Télérama, France’s top cultural weekly, asked 100 writers to name their favourite books, The Princess of Cleves came third behind Proust’s In Search of Lost Time and Joyce’s Ulysses. Such a result would have been highly unlikely pre-Sarkozy.

France may no longer be the centre of world culture, but culture remains at the centre of what it means to be French. Ask any counter clerk.