Leading Article: Why France should be linguistically laissez-faire

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The Independent Online
THE French suffer from a strange defeatism where their culture is concerned. Its strength was illustrated yesterday by the publication of a last, hitherto suppressed, autobiographical novel by Albert Camus, a name engraved in the memory of hundreds of thousands of students around the world. That old defensiveness was on view again as the Senate debated the so- called loi Toubon.

Jacques Toubon is France's minister for culture. His Bill will theoretically outlaw the use by companies, government departments and the media of any foreign (that is, mainly English) terms when a suitable French word or phrase exists. Offenders will be liable to fines or worse for this form of etymological treason. Advertisers have been obliged since 1975 to append an asterisked footnote offering a French translation of any foreign words used in their text.

There is no need to dilate here on the many and dazzling glories of French literature, painting and music. Camus himself has for several generations, and especially since his death in a car crash in 1960, occupied a special and heroic place in the hearts of young people. His enormously successful first novel, L'Etranger (The Outsider), seemed to raise the alienation felt by many of them to a philosophical plane: its hero refuses to say more than he genuinely feels and to conform to society's demands. His remaining two novels, La Peste (The Plague), often interpreted as an allegory about the German invasion, and the more nihilistic La Chute (The Fall), were not much less successful. In literary terms, his posthumous problem has been to be taken as seriously by academics, who usually have their own developed views about the value of social structures, as by their students, to whom Camus's hostility comes as a refreshing endorsement of their own sense of youthful revolt.

Camus sprang, albeit via Algeria, from a cultural tradition that remains very strong. It has no need to be defended by such measures as the loi Toubon. The German language has been more thoroughly penetrated by Anglo-American terms than French, especially in the fields of sport, business and computers; but the Germans see such words as useful and enriching. And naturally any Anglo-Saxon with a soupcon of savoir-vivre would see the lack of chic in venturing up a linguistic cul- de-sac so palpably vieux jeu.