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Last Updated: Thursday, 8 February 2007, 21:01 GMT
French unions wage war on words
By Caroline Wyatt
BBC Paris correspondent

Tourists sit near the Eiffel Tower in Paris
The French are fighting back against the use of English
French trades unions have discovered a new enemy to protest against: the English language.

Leading the charge of the French language brigade in its latest skirmish against the invading Anglo-Saxon force is French MP Jacques Myard.

Unusually for an MP on the right of the political spectrum, the troops following him into battle are French trades unionists and language pressure groups, united in a new French Resistance.

They argue that the English language has colonised French screens, large and small, infiltrated French music, and is now conquering the French workplace as well, in e-mails or "les e-mails", and on "le web" or "l'internet" and even on "les news".

'Respect people'

All this has to stop, insists Monsieur Myard. "I think this is very dangerous, because the French language is the spirit of France and of every Frenchman," he says.

"So it would be a big mistake for enterprises who want to do business in France to impose their own culture. We French were imperialists long before them, so we know how it works."

Delivering his defence of the French language in perfect English, Mr Myard continues: "It is time for us to react and say to businesses - stop your nonsense! Respect people. Learn French. Learn German, learn Chinese and Arabic, as well as English."

A French manager at Areva, the French nuclear firm, sent an e-mail to his French workers informing them of the death of a colleague - in English. Why?
Jean-Loup Cuisiniez
CFTC trade union

The French have already legislated against the English language encroaching too much in songs on the radio by means of a quota limiting English pop, rock and rap, but the language just keeps creeping back in via other routes.

According to a survey brandished by the French trades unions at their press conference in Parliament today, 7% of French firms already use English as their main language, while multi-nationals routinely send e-mails to their French workers in English regardless of whether they understand them.

Jean-Loup Cuisiniez of the CFTC trade union says the trend towards using English in the workplace here is both dangerous and insulting to French workers.

"A French manager at Areva, the French nuclear firm, sent an e-mail to his French workers informing them of the death of a colleague - in English. Why? There is something wrong when that happens," he says.

English has become the international language
Pierre Kosciusko-Morizet

Monsieur Cuisiniez also believes that safety, as well as efficiency, could be compromised if workers do not understand instructions given to them in a foreign language.

He himself speaks five languages including English, Spanish and Japanese, but worries that monoglot French workers in factories and offices may feel unable to admit to their lack of English.

"They might not want to confess that they don't understand instructions, and that could be very dangerous," he says, "especially if workers fear that they could be sidelined if management discover their lack of English."

He himself refused to use English-language software for his computer at work, eventually forcing his company to back down and provide it in French.

French decline

Yet Pierre Kosciusko-Morizet, CEO of the French internet company priceminister.com, believes that this rearguard action against the infiltration of English comes too late.

His firm, based in trendy loft-style offices in northern Paris, does business in several languages including English and now Spanish, and he too speaks fluent English.

"I wish that French were the global language of business," he sighs. "Because my French is better than my English. But it isn't. English has become the international language. And I don't believe that the right way to go about things is by banning a language - that is not how English became a global language."

The Eiffel tower in Paris, France
Some French are not giving up the fight to save the language

Recently, the new American head of a merged Franco-American telecoms firm was reported to have announced that she had no plans to learn French before coming to meet her colleagues, much to the chagrin of her French staff.

All this has made some in France fear that the decline in the use of the French language - both in international diplomacy and business - goes hand in hand with the decline of French influence on the world stage and its importance as a global power.

However, few French are yet willing to admit defeat on the language front, even as "les businessmen" and "les managers" continue to help the enemy's sneaky advance into French territory.

Country profile: France
30 Nov 06 |  Country profiles


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