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Last Updated: Saturday, 6 May 2006, 11:01 GMT 12:01 UK
Drowning in France's alphabet soup

By Hugh Schofield
BBC News, Paris

Moving to a new country often means adjusting to a different culture, climate and food. But as Hugh Schofield discovers, it can still be a confusing experience, even if you can speak the language.

Plastic alphabet letters
The use of acronyms, abbreviations and initials in France is common
One of the first things anyone living in France has to acquire is a "rib". Or to articulate it correctly, "un reeb."

What does it stand for? R.I.B.

Ten years after moving here, I have absolutely no idea.

All I know is that it is a piece of paper supplied by your bank giving details of your account. It is used for paying bills, and you will not get far here unless you have a healthy supply of "reeb".

The same goes for "le teep". T.I.P.

Again, it is something banky - I am not sure what - and everyone has to have one.

France operates on these verbal shortcuts.

To learn them takes time and a sort of mental jotter is required so that you can constantly note down new discoveries.

But eventually you find you have broken into new linguistic terrain and things that were utterly incomprehensible, are clothed with wonderful meaning.

'Staps' and 'zeps'

A student shouts anti-CPS slogans in France
French students took to the streets in March and April 2006
In the news recently we have been hearing a lot about the CPE, the youth jobs contract that was scrapped after weeks of protests.

Cycling past the Louvre in the middle of the crisis, I found large red letters painted over the tarmac: STAPS on strike against the CPE.

Who or what were, or are, the Staps?

I had to look it up - they are sports students.

It stands for "sciences et techniques des activites physiques et sportives". But apparently everyone here knows them as les Staps.

Earlier we had the riots.

These were carried out in the "Zus" and "Zeps" - special urban priority zones, by people who were either SMIC-ards or RMI-istes: people on the minimum wage or the dole.

Some may have been SDF - sans domicile fixe - that is, homeless.

They certainly had no chance of getting a "Deug" at the "Fac" - a university degree.

And few will earn enough to make their annual contribution to the "Fisc", the income tax authorities.

'Alphabet soup'

Every country of course has its share of initials and acronyms, but France does seem to have more than most.

Does it reflect, I wonder, some different kind of relationship French people have with bureaucracy and their institutions?

Here in France the honour of being known by your initials is bestowed on only a chosen few
People here do not mind being dependent on official bodies of one kind or another. In fact they rather like it - it is the natural order of things.

Or is it something else: that the French just relish the sounds these short, blunt neologisms make because they are the sort of word that their own mellifluous, Latin-based language does not contain?

Initial approval

In every day speech you get a fair few "acronymisations".

Michele Alliot-Marie
Then there is the wonderfully apt "Mam" for Michele Alliot-Marie, the schoolmarmy defence minister

BCBG - bon chic bon genre - the "nice people" of the 16th arrondissement, have been replaced as the Paris archetype by Bobos, the bohemian bourgeoisie who vote left and live rich.

If you do a "b a" it means bon action, or good work.

A "dab" is a cash-dispenser; a "pv" is a parking ticket and "pq" means lavatory paper - "p" for papier and "q" because it sounds like the French word for your rear-end.

I leave aside the TGV, the PMU, the PME, the VTT, the PQN, the PQR.

And then there are the people.

Early in his long career the ultra-ambitious Texan politician Lyndon Johnson insisted on being called LBJ because he wanted the association with FDR, President Roosevelt.

Here in France the honour of being known by your initials is bestowed on only a chosen few, and not all rise to the highest office.

VGE is ex-president Valery Giscard d'Estaing and BB is the sex goddess turned animal rights activist Brigitte Bardot, immortalised incidentally in a song by Serge Gainsbourg called Initiales BB.

Then there is the wonderfully apt "Mam" for Michele Alliot-Marie, the schoolmarmy defence minister.

Back among the non-politicians, PPDA is news reader Patrick Poivre d'Arvor, and BHL - lounge-lizard philosopher Bernard Henri Levy.

The self-regarding and now disgraced businessman Jean-Marie Messier was known originally as J2M but this changed at the height of his fame to J6M - Jean-Marie Messier - "moi-meme - maitre du monde". "Myself. Master of the world."

But that is about it as far as illustrious initials go.

Apart from Mam there are none in the current government.

Perhaps it is just as well.

Everlasting he may be, I am not sure that President Jacques Chirac would quite live up to his billing.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 6 May, 2006 at 1030 GMT / 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

Country profile: France
18 Apr 06 |  Country profiles



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