France's Mr All-Good seeks to ban bad words

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The Independent Online
PARIS - A law to safeguard the French language against foreign impurities has gone before the Senate where supporters railed against the 'gangrene' of the language and opponents dismissed legislation as a cultural 'Maginot Line', writes Julian Nundy.

The law, drawn up by Jacques Toubon, the Gaullist Culture Minister, insists on pure French in advertising, the media, work contracts and conferences - a problem where science and technology are concerned. The Senate started its first reading of the law on Tuesday evening and was due to vote yesterday.

Under attack were 3,500 words, mostly of Anglo-American origin, for which Franco-French replacements must be found. Innovative suggestions would have 'fast food' become resto-vite, 'planning' plannigramme and 'compact disc' disque audio-numerique. Mr Toubon's law expands and improves on similar 1975 legislation which made it obligatory to carry a translation of foreign words or phrases used in advertisements. The new bill provides for fines of up to 2,000 francs ( pounds 240) if foreign words are used in advertisements, by the media or in work contracts. State subsidies could be withdrawn from conferences where French was not in a monopoly. The punishments go as far as six-month prison sentences for those who try to obstruct state inspectors on linguistic duty.

Mr Toubon, presenting the bill, said the defence of French did not imply insularity. In Indo-China, he said, 'you can feel the ardent need for the French language' and, in Algeria, 'every day, intellectuals, artists and ordinary citizens are killed because they have chosen to insist on the use of French'.

The Senate debate revealed a rare consensus between Gaullist and Communist members. 'It is a matter of national identity,' said Marc Lauriol, a Gaullist who first distinguished himself in the 1975 debates on the same issue. 'The defence of language is an affair of state,' said Ivan Renar, a Communist.

But Francoise Seligmann, a Socialist, said she was shocked by the bill's implied 'xenophobia'. 'You want to stick up a sort of Maginot Line behind which French would be protected from foreign intrusions,' she added, warning Mr Toubon: 'Your methods risk deepening even further the divide which separates you from the young.'

Mr Toubon's law is the latest of four and a half centuries of efforts to keep French pure since it was declared the national language over Latin in 1539. Ninety-eight years later, when Richelieu founded the Academie Francaise, the language gained an official watchdog.

Since Mr Toubon announced the new law early this year, he has personally become a target. At a political meeting where he was on the platform last month, Jacques Chirac, president of the Gaullist RPR party, peppered his speech with foreign words, turning to Mr Toubon for the French translations, a task he plainly sometimes found difficult. And in the US, columnists discussing the law have re- named the French minister 'Mr All-Good', drawn from tout bon.