Pardon my French - and Peter Mayle's bloody book

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A FEW weeks ago the French government made the headlines after deciding on a policy of ethnic cleansing. It wasn't ethnic cleansing on the Serbian scale. Nobody was killed and nobody was left starving. It was simply an act of linguistic cleansing. The French announced their decision to protect their language by putting severe restrictions on the import of Anglo-Saxon expressions, and moments later hordes of displaced idioms and homeless American business phrases were fleeing across the French border, dazed and desperate.

There was an immediate reaction all round the world. Everyone laughed. The spectacle of a major nation getting so nervous about its own language that it puts up trade barriers against other languages is, frankly, laughable, or at the very least not quite as tragic as death in Bosnia and starvation in Rwanda.

And the whole thing was exaggerated by our lack of sympathy with the French position. We in Britain have a quite different attitude to our own language. We are hardly even aware of it. When we import foreign expressions we don't sniff around them distrustfully - we leap on them and welcome them and immediately adopt them and forget that they were ever foreign, which is why there are so many foreign terms in English, like parka and anorak and en suite, and why we have let our language be swamped by Americanisms . . .

Even the Americans, not famous for their interest in other people's languages, would not enact laws against foreign phrases. Indeed, there was a piece in Monday's International Herald Tribune by an enlightened American called Nicholas D Kristof, who is learning Japanese prior to a journalistic stint in Tokyo. In this piece, Kristof said that English was too insular and should import far more foreign expressions and words, and gave a list of Japanese, Australian and even Indian phrases that he wanted to see imported. That man, I cannot help feeling, will never be a member of the French government.

Well, the French language ban came and went, and the only thing that happened in the dozy world of Anglo-Saxon talk, as far as I could tell, was that Anthony Steen MP, of whom I had not heard, put down a Commons motion calling for the banning of all French expressions in English. It was meant, I believe, as a joke. By parliamentary standards, no doubt, it was a good joke.

But it didn't reflect reality. The reality is that we have lots of French in our language, and it has done it nothing but good. The reality of the situation was better reflected by the Tom Stoppard play Dirty Linen, in which the first five minutes of dialogue is all in French, but in French that is currently used in English, so that anyone educated could understand what was going on, even if he thought he couldn't speak French.

Nevertheless, the thirst for revenge against the French that Mr Steen MP represents, in his own small way, is a worthy motive. Resentment against the French has governed much of our history. It wouldn't have been the same, somehow, if we had defeated the Prussians at Trafalgar or fought it out with the Italians for control of Canada. I'm not saying it wouldn't have been fun; I'm just saying it wouldn't have been the same.

(And let us not forget that there are times when we and the French are on the same side. I think it would be true to say that if France were to play New Zealand at rugby, and we were to watch the match, there would be some deep, noble spirit within us which would want the New Zealanders to get their noses rubbed in it. Why, only the other day France thrashed the All Blacks on New Zealand soil, twice in a row, and I could not find it in me to feel sad.)

However, there is still that lingering, residual desire for revenge against the French, and I am proud to say that we are about to achieve that revenge. I recently received a cutting from a Brussels correspondent of mine with the glamorous name of Nika. The cutting was in French. Here is what it said:

'Peter Mayle made the whole world laugh with A Year in Provence. Now at last it is translated into French.'

Yes, the French are about to get the whole horror of the Peter Mayle experience. With any luck they will have to suffer the TV programmes, too. If that is not revenge, I don't know what is.

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