La grande nation… il y a quelques temps

March 27th, 2006
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Few countries have taken their diminished geopolitical and cultural influence as badly as the French. After some two centuries of expansionism, beginning in the mid-17th century, France saw itself eclipsed at first overseas by England and then on the continent by Germany. These latter powers have of course themselves been displaced by the United States and, to a lesser extent, Russia. So despite almost two centuries of reverses, from Waterloo to Sedan to Verdun to Blitzkrieg 1940 to Dien Bien Phu to Algeria, it still hasn’t quite sunk in.

This unfortunate state of national self-delusion manifests itself in several ways. On the geopolitical front, France has frequently lapsed into a questionable Sonderweg, characterized by sorties of Foreign Legionnaires into its perceived African sphere of influence, and shady dealings with second and third world dictatorships. The latter is often done under the convenient guise of providing a “counterbalance” to the American cowboys.

On the cultural front the battle has been mostly linguistic, with the langue de Molieres under onslaught by the dreaded English. So the Academie Francaise is constantly engaged in expunging anglicismes from the vernacular and French politicians demanding equal time for their smaller numbers.

So it was that Friday French president Jacques Chirac led his delegation out of an EU summit, upon hearing a French business leader use English in a speech. “I have to say I was profoundly shocked to see a Frenchman express himself in English at the (EU) Council table. That’s why the French delegation and myself walked out rather than listen to that,” Chirac told reporters. One can imagine his reaction had the poor gentleman lapsed into German.

But the French have a – how shall we say? – certain attitude toward language. Thanks to some fortuitous history, most of France’s borders extend beyond the linguistic boundaries of the French itself. The official way of handling this has been nothing if not consistent. Every measure has been taken to expunge the Celtic language in Brittany. When Corsican nationalists caused unrest there, former President Giscard d’Estaing famously commented that “There is no Corsican problem, only problems in Corsica”. (Eat your heart out Mackenzie King!). Similarly, French travel guides refer to a “charming local patois” spoken in Alsace. That would of course be German, one of the other two official languages of the EU.

A quick Google of nation-by-nation statistics shows a similar attitude. While Austria shows 91% German-speakers and Slovene, Hungarian and Croatian as official languages (in Carinthia and Burgenland respectively), France boasts a 100% French-speaking population with “rapidly declining regional dialects and languages (Provencal, Breton, Alsatian, Corsican, Catalan, Basque, Flemish)”.

Gosh. We wonder why they could be “rapidly declining”? Clearly, our Office de la Langue Francaise still has a few things to learn.

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