Language policy is an important part of almost all European issues. Which languages should be used? What is practical? Is the hegemony of English inevitable? How can Members of the European Parliament be allowed to work effectively and still express themselves in their native language? What language mix would allow the EU to hire from the biggest pool of talent? (For instance, Brits who decided to learn Spanish are excluded from working for the European Commission if they have not learned French or German.)
The problem of language is most important for France, which is always extremely keen on imposing the use of the French language whenever possible, often regardless of practicality, whether in the UN, NATO or European institutions. I will one day write a thoughtful post on the use of French, which in addition to be a “noble” language in itself has some legitimate advantages over English in certain settings. For now, I want to limit my attention to the “linguistic hysteria” of a fraction of French people, and in particular the elite.
Often, the question of language amounts to nothing more than a matter of face. Jean Quatremer (literally “John Four-Seas” in French) is France’s most prominent journalist on EU affairs. He represents an extreme case of hyper-sensitivity in this regard. Many of his blog posts are dedicated to the question of the non-use of French in the EU in general and the oppression of French-speakers by crypto-fascist Flemish nationalists in Flanders.
Most recently, Quatremer expressed his anger at the way that Viviane Reding – the European Commissioner for Justice – made her challenge against France for ethnically targeting the Roma. The reason for Quatremer’s anger, Redding, who as a Luxembourger is perfectly francophone, made her challenge in English.
This, Quatremer’s sources told him, was a willful decision on the part of the Commissioner to distance herself from France. From here, I can only make my point by quoting Quatremer verbatim at length:
- “This choice, let us say it clearly, is simply scandalous and I am weighing my words: As though the fact of speaking French or simply being French led one naturally to be discriminatory towards the Roma or even adopting a racist conduct. A logic which ought to have led to banning the German language in 1945…” (…)
- “[T]he French, no more than the Germans or the Italians, do not speak English, except for a small elite. After eleven years in Brussels, Reding apparently has forgotten this.”
- “Finally, the commissioner seems to consider that English is a language is at least neutral or even carries values far superior to those of the French language. Someone will have to explain this to the detainees in Guantanamo or the prisoners on death row in the United States…”
- “In short, the linguistic choice of Reding is ridiculous, counter-productive and tinted with an ethnic conception of language. Ironic (un comble) for a speech which rightly stigmatises xenophobia.”
So let us be clear: to refuse to speak French according to Jean Quatremer is to be racist against French people, to accuse them of racism, proof that one holds “Francophone values” in low esteem, and proof again that one is so blinded by “Anglophone values” that one can’t recognize the faults of the United States of America.
Quatremer’s inclination is not an aberration. A significant fraction of politicized Frenchmen consider the use of English, in and of itself, to be synonymous with Anglo-Saxon-capitalist-neoliberal-neoconservative hegemony. The “Carpette anglaise” is an “unprize” granted to members of the French elite for the use of English and abandonment of French. It is granted to people not only for the promotion of English in France and European institutions, but those “whose behavior of spineless submission to the diktats of the globalized financial powers who are responsible for the flattening of national identities, of democracy and of humanistic social systems.” One could heartily agree to oppose these things. But is the act of speaking English itself a sign of neoliberalism and market fundamentalism? I suppose this fact alone should discredit the Socialist/anti-imperialist professions of George Orwell and Noam Chomsky…
As for me, I was shocked to find that many of my fellow Eurocrats, although they found the comments ridiculous, were not at all surprised to hear this from a Frenchman. In fact, it was not even noteworthy. Perhaps, but that such linguistic hysteria is now so synonymous with a Frenchman that it elicits so reaction is, for me, embarrassing enough.