Defending the French language from the creeping invasion of English has long been a favourite pastime of France’s elite. In 2006 President Jacques Chirac walked out of a Brussels summit in protest at a Frenchman speaking in English. It is a point of national pride to defend l’exception francaise and to protect French music, film, even advertising, from the corrupting influence of English. So why are the French giving up the struggle?
As French children filed back to school on September 2, Xavier Darcos, the education minister, announced that he is increasing English-language teaching in the curriculum. “I’ve had enough of hearing that the French do not learn English,” he says. “It’s a big disadvantage for international competition.” By the end of compulsory schooling, he promises all pupils will be bilingual.
The French are embracing English in less high-minded ways too. When they entered a song in English at this year’s Eurovision song contest, it provoked wry amusement abroad, but indifference at home. For many young French musicians singing in English is now de rigueur. The gravelly voiced French crooners of the past have given way to bands like The Do, Hey Hey My My or Cocoon, whose latest album is called ‘My Friends All Died in a Plane Crash’. “The children of globalisation are giving up writing in French,” declared Le Monde, the bible of the French elite — without apparent regret.
Once this might have had official France spluttering with indignation. The rules designed to fend off English remain — and are an obstacle to new musicians who do not qualify for the quota of radio time reserved for singers in French. Yet in the globalised, internet age, the French seem to realise, as Darcos put it, that the losers from a refusal to learn English are themselves — and that speaking it need not make them less French. Even ministers host un chat on le web. Part of this is due to Chirac’s successor, Nicolas Sarkozy, who although no linguist, rejects the atavistic anti-Americanism that underpins much hostility to English. Appropriately, Comme si de rien n'etait, the new vocal music album by his wife, Carla Bruni, has a track in English — presumably not one his predecessor will listen to.
(Excerpted and adapted from The Economist)