Et pourquoi pas English?

September 16, 2010 § Leave a comment

On Tuesday, Libération’s Brussels correspondent, the indomitable Jean Quatremer,  mounted his favorite hobby horse, the perils of the use of English at the Commission. This time it was Viviane Reding’s condemnation of France’s expulsion of the Roma that caused his cables to snap. It’s worth quoting in full the following passages which I fear fail to convey their vigour in original French, but hey –

“Her intervention was in the language of Shakespeare only. According to a Commission spokesperson, Reding, a citizen of Luxembourg and therefore perfectly able to speak French and German, deliberately did this in order to mark her distance from France.

“Her choice, let’s be clear about this, is quite simply scandalous and I am measuring my words here. As if the fact of speaking French or being French leads quite naturally to a discriminatory attitude towards the Roma and even towards racist behaviour… A logic which would have led to the banning of the German language in 1945… Viviane Reding furthermore gives the impression that “Brussels” is not able to express itself in any another language but English and this comforts the suspicions of a number of French that see the Union more and more as a foreign body which has the presumption to rule France from outside its borders: aside from a small elite, the French, no more than the Germans or the Italians, do not speak English.”

Firstly, she probably spoke in English because she knew it would have maximum impact not just in Europe but around the world, if the world is at all bothered by this sordid tale of a French presidency running on empty and casting desperately about for a cause. Secondly, with all due respect to Quatremer, it’s completely untrue to say that only “a small elite” speaks English in France, Germany and Italy. I would hazard a guess that the majority of young Europeans under forty, let alone French, Germans, Italians, speak moderate to good English, or at least can get by with a limited vocabulary of a few hundred words, which is all you need to read The Sun, as legend has it.

But in typical French fashion, Quatremer confuses the use of English as a vehicle for Anglo-American values and power rather than a means to get more followers on Twitter, or get the latest downloads or something. “The commissioner seems to consider that English is to say the least a neutral language or even one that embodies values far superior to the French language. Someone should go explain this to the detainees at Guantanamo or the prisoners in Death Row in the United States.”

But this is actually a typically French assumption about language, that it is a vehicle for values, if not influence and power. The appropriation of English as a world language, however, means that it no longer has a national or an ethnic underpinning, does not reflect the prejudices of London or Washington. As someone fortunate enough to be able to speak French and make himself understood, albeit comically, in five other European languages, I’m beginning to wonder if European construction is at all possible if one language cannot predominate. I couldn’t care less if it wasn’t English, but why shouldn’t it be?

EUROPHRENIA- We are all Belgians now

April 22, 2010 § Leave a comment

As you might have heard, Belgian PM Yves Leterme has just just resigned, again. This is the fifth time he’s quit public office, and his third exit as prime-minister. He may well be the Ziggy Stardust of Belgian poltics. Perhaps he’s always playing his last concert, but coming back once again, only a little more worn. One can sympathise. His coalition with Open VLD (Flemish liberals) collapsed over failure to reach agreement on the languages rights and privileges of French and Flemish speakers of the bilingual constituency of Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde (BHV).

This shouldn’t be serious stuff, but in the Lilliputian world of Belgian politics, micro-minded obnoxiousness rules. Just ten km from Brussels, in Lennik, the local municipality requires that in order to build on bought land you must speak Flemish, or “be willing to learn it”. In another Flemish town, Linkebeek, the French-speaking mayor has not been officially appointed because he has failed to comply with similar “language rules.” You get the picture. This is a feeble central state in which the hair-splitting pettiness of town hall politics trumps national concerns.

A lovely illustration of this addiction to hair-splitting, or, as the French say, to “enculage des mouches” (i.e. the buggering of flies) comes from Le Monde. François Pirette, who has radio programme on Bel-RTl, phoned up the Belgian municipality of Dilbeek, near Brussels, passing himself off as a French-speaking Ivorian diplomat looking for information. He first got answered in Flemish by the civil servant on the other end of the line, who then confessed that although he understood and spoke French he was forbidden to use it. Pirette as Ivorian insisted he needed the info badly as one of his colleagues was looking to buy a house in the region. The civil servant broke off several times seeking permission from his superiors to do French, which he obtained, but only, as he confided to Pirette, because he was “a foreign diplomat.”

This is all laughable. But wait. The Belgian state might be foundering on disputes over trivial issues, but if you look elsewhere, most of our politics is distinguished by the same pettiness. Tonight, the three leaders of Britain’s main parties are to debate national issues in the second of three live election debates. If their last performance is anything to go by, they will be in perfect agreement on substance – immigration (a problem), Afghanistan (more helicopters), public services (slash), but will be at pains to sound distinct from each other, but will attempt to fall out on the micro-management of such issues by deploying gassy rhetoric. Trivia politics is the norm these days in mainstream poltics. A tedium, one might argue, that drives ordinary citizens to the intoxications of identity-obsessed cretins like the BNP. We are all Belgians now.

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