The president’s approval ratings are at an all-time low. Unemployment is at an all-time high. So you might think that the French prime minister has more pressing matters on his hands than regulating the use of English in official documents.
Prime MinisterJean-Marc Ayrault, a former German teacher, sprang into action after the industry minister launched a sector with the English title of “Silver Economy” to boost the economic role of the elderly in France.
The same day, Mr Ayrault fired off a memo warning the entire government against resorting to foreign terms. His note on “the use of the French language” dug back into history as far back as 1539 to explain that, as confirmed in the 1992 constitution, “the language of the Republic is French.”
He went on to say, according to the memo leaked to Le Figaro, that “our language is able to express every contemporary reality and describe innovations” in science and technology.
Official France is paranoid about English contaminating the language of Molière. Indeed the Académie Francaise is there to protect the purity of the French language. But more often than not, the Academy tries to slam the stable door shut long after the horse has bolted, particularly in the technological field. For example the Academy ruled in 2003 that “courriel” was the correct French word for email, whereas the emailing French population continues to use “mail” or “mel”. Its ruling on “tweets” - which have slipped into the French language - is breathlessly awaited, after it tried to outlaw the use of the English word “hashtag”.
Meanwhile, the silver-haired Mr Ayrault doesn’t appear to be following his own instructions. Only two days after circulating his memo, his official Twitter account on Saturday sought to heal a rift with German Chancellor Angela Merkel after Socialist party heavyweights called for a “confrontation” with Germany. Immediately following the tweet in English, was a version in German.
Some observers have interpreted the alacrity with which Mr Ayrault reacted to the “Silver Economy” program as a further sign of his tense relationship with the maverick Industry Minister, Arnaud Montebourg, who yesterday called for “the opening of hostilities with the European Union”. In an interview with Le Point news magazine, he also said he would advise President François Hollande to go on an “earth shattering European tour.”
Montebourg, who is on the left wing of the ruling Socialist party, has been in Mr Ayrault’s bad books since telling Indian steel tycoon Lakshmi Mittal that he was “not welcome in France”. It is no secret that the prime minister wanted the ebullient minister fired.
Mr Hollande’s intentions about a government reshuffle remain unclear, and he has sought to calm rumours that he would replace Mr Ayrault. But the latest linguistic spat highlights another feature of the Socialist government: the prime minister is having difficulty controlling his unruly troops.