The language war is never far from the surface in Brussels. Now, with the creation of a network of press minders for Romano Prodi, the new commission president, it is back with a vengeance amid renewed complaints about the erosion of French.
The battle reached its climax on Tuesday when one new (German) press officer replied in English to a question put in French. Although this was standard practice under the ancien regime it produced a barrage of complaints, including one from an outraged French diplomat.
Why the new sensitivity? The answer lies in the arrival of Mr Prodi in Brussels. His predecessor, Jacques Santer, may have been ineffectual but at least, as a Luxembourger, French was one of his two native tongues. Before Mr Santer's reign, Jacques Delors had guaranteed the supremacy of the French language throughout his two terms. He had been preceded by another Luxembourger, Gaston Thorn. Not since Roy Jenkins left Brussels in 1981 has the citadel of the European Commission been captured by a non-native French speaker.
Mr Prodi, the scholarly ex-professor, educated at the London School of Economics, finds English easier. The same can be said for his chief spokesman, Ricardo Levi. Mr Prodi's chef de cabinet, David O'Sullivan, speaks good French, although he is a native English-speaker.
All of which means, says a commission source, that the French "see an Anglo-Saxon plot around every corner". It is difficult to overestimate the extent to which the French feel under threat. Paris correctly sees itself as the architect of the EU, the nation that has shaped its development more than any other. France is proprietorial about the way it functions having, for example, exported the French political system of private offices to Brussels.
Only for the past five years has the press room in Brussels permitted questions in English: before, a journalist who had the temerity to utter a non-French question would be shouted down. Paris has long had a tendency to equate being in Europe with running it.
But with the enlargement of the European Union to 15, including Nordic nations in which English is widely spoken, English has gained in currency with gathering pace. Mr Prodi's arrival (he was France's first choice for the job) comes at a sensitive juncture. Some Parisian noses have already been put out of joint.
A call from Mr Prodi for the EU to double in size to 30 member states, and to consider putting a start date on accession by December's Helsinki summit, brought protests from France. Paris has rarely been an enthusiast for enlargement because of the potential dilution of its influence. The result has been a new bout of French militancy. As one insider put it: "It is part of the French psyche to feel under threat. They are not arguing for linguistic diversity, they are arguing for the supremacy of French. The French establishment has mobilised to defend the French language, and the press room has become a linguistic battleground."
The costs of linguistic guerrilla warfare are spiralling out of control. There are 11 official EU languages, giving rise to a potential 110 combinations, although meetings have different levels of translation. About one-third of the officials of Europe's institutions are translators. With 24 hours, the standard waiting time for getting hold of in-house translators, officials who want to make a speedy announcement are faced with a dilemma: wait until tomorrow or translate it yourself. To which the French answer is somewhat predictable: why bother with the English version?Reuse content