It was George W Bush who famously observed that the trouble with the French was that they had no word for entrepreneur
. The remark is enjoyed in France to this day. What's currently engaging some of the country's most scholarly minds, though, is the implication that France has no words for hype, fellowship
I say implication, because in most of these cases French has perfectly acceptable words. The charge is that marketing managers choose not to use them. The Académie Française is gravely concerned that English words and phrases are increasingly deployed in preference to French because they are seen to be cooler: to convey a caché
, a finesse
, a certain je ne sais quoi
. As we English-speakers say.
There is never much ambiguity when the Académie is upset about something. Its disapproval is fearsome to behold. This is an organisation with an indelible licence to be snooty. It was set up by Cardinal Richelieu in 1635, closed down by the Revolution, restored by Napoleon. From its sumptuous crescent palace by the Seine, it issues sonorous pronouncements on the usage, grammar and vocabulary of the French language. It is France's lexicographical politburo, and its word has the force, not quite of law, but of unassailable rectitude. You don't mess with the Académie Française.
Wha daur meddle wi' immortals? Les immortels
is the name given to the 40 members of the Académie, whose motto modestly dedicates them à l'immortalité
. They are there for life, elected not to the Académie in general, but to the specific numbered seat that has fallen vacant. At their inauguration, they are required to speak gushingly of the previous occupant, and legend recounts that people of distinction have begged off because they consider the previous incumbent a pillock. Election needs the approval of the President of the Republic, though he never dares to veto. One of the 40 is not merely immortal but perpetual, having been chosen (for life) by the others to serve as The Perpetual
: chair, secretary and public voice of the Académie.
The Academié maintains The Dictionary
, the sovereign authority on the French language, and publishes periodic policy papers. It has waded into the turbulent waters of political correctness, producing a series of anguished (and, frankly, contradictory) rulings on gender-specific terms like médecin(e) or acteur/trice. Such lofty judgements invariably degenerate into political disputation. There is currently much heated argument over whether 'le wokeisme' is fundamentally unFrench. The work of the Académie is an unrivalled pendant's playground… which doesn't diminish the obligation on everyone in public life to take it seriously.
Franglais, the importation of English words into French, has long been a torment to the Académie. Given that the practice can be traced back for at least 250 years and that, as we have seen, the traffic is two-way, a blanket denunciation is not tenable. On the other hand, a lot of the importations grow no less ugly for familiarity. Le football
, le parking
, le weekend
lack the music of spoken French, however nasally you pronounce them. All the Académie can realistically, if regretfully, do is to address itself to new usages, since the established ones aren't going anywhere.
Technology presents a particular problem, and the internet exacerbates it. Most of the technical innovations of our age have been developed, if not invented, in the Anglosphere. This is a truth that confronts anyone trying to keep an ancient language unsullied and alive. It was no fault of the ancient Celts that they did not have a word for telephone, yet politics dictates that Irish phone boxes bear the word Telefon
, much as the Scottish Government inflicts made-up Gaelic names on places that never spoke Gaelic and where no-one will ever utter the word on the expensive new signage.
So too, the guardians of French purity fought to resist computer
. The results were mixed. L'ordinateur
is now pretty much the universal word for computer. Baladeur
waged a doughty battle with Walkman, until both disappeared from use. But while courriel
is recognised everywhere as the proper word for email, you more often hear mail
in conversation. Some words too are imported and then diverge confusingly: populaire
doesn't mean popular (that's connu
) but demotic. So you needn't feel obliged to like the Banque Populaire
Last month the Académie issued a report, drawn up by a commission of six Immortals, addressing what seems to be a recent twist on these old contortions. Its central allegation was of a deplorable tendency on the part of major organisations, both public and private sector, to use English words or phrases in their corporate communications because they believe it imparts an international prestige that dowdy old French would not convey.
The marketing trade is especially in their sights. They shudder at the postal service's Pick-up Stations
(lockers, to thee and me); at entertainment chainstore Fnac's French Days
, at Citroën's Space Tourer
, Renault's Easy Drive
system, Peugeot's dreadful Unboring the Future
slogan, Air France's Sky Team
, the farm sector's TasteFrance
campaign. Civic promotional campaigns touch a particularly raw nerve: Smile in Reims
, I Love Nice
, Only Lyon
The report says that the trend is not just degrading French vocabulary, but exerting 'a certain gravity on the syntax and the very structure of French' and creating 'a real grammatical vagueness'. The complaint here, one suspects, is the same one that we grumpy old Brits make about American English, as imbibed from the internet, which generates grating injunctions to 'check out', rather than merely check, products, or talk 'with' call centres.
However, the Académie insists that there is a serious point behind its pedantry. The report posits a 'social and generational fracture' from linguistic imports. It argues that they set out to seduce people of under-average age and above-average education: an example being the Anglophone pun of rail operator SNCF's Ouigo ('we go') branding. Such gags exclude as well as beguile. A survey in 2020 found that 47% of French people were annoyed by Franglais advertising, with antipathy strongest among the over-60s. A third said that Franglais intrusions hindered comprehension.
One commission Immortal, Professor Sir Michael Edwards, the only Brit (ever) in the Académie, told the English-language newspaper The Connexion
: 'Everyone agrees that borrowing can be an enrichment, but normally it is step-by-step. Now it seems uncontrollable'.
Edwards hopes the report will raise awareness and bring people to their senses. Others dismiss it as reactionary tosh. A few detect a national affront: far-right Presidential candidate Marine Le Pen promises an outright ban on foreign language advertising, enforced somehow. She could always try the British remedy of just wilfully mispronouncing words (eg, Nestlé/Nessull) to make them sound less foreign.
Keith Aitken is a journalist, writer and broadcaster