Monday, January 16, 2012

Ah, l’Éloquence: Politics Highlights Importance of Language in France

The French are in love with words
writes Christine Ockrent.
Written words, spoken words, words to sing or to scream or to declaim. Their elite schools train them to believe that once they forge an elegant formula, the problem they have to confront is already half solved.

Nowhere does it show better than in politics.

…a few days ago [François Hollande] published an “open letter to the French” in the newspaper Libération. It is two full pages long, beautifully written, an ode to the basic principles of the Republic and a description of the many evils the Sarkozy regime purportedly inflicted on the country.

All the right words are there: truth, willpower, justice, hope, the suffering of the common people; the need to contain the deficits, reduce inequalities, share wealth and regulate markets; the decisive moment for our future and that of our children. In short, a great piece of French political literature — completely abstract and theoretical from beginning to end, and almost impossible to translate into any other language.

Here’s a sample: “The French are suffering. They are suffering in their own lives ... . They are also suffering in their collective soul; they feel there is contempt for the values and the institutions of the Republic, the social contract is under attack, the influence of the country is damaged and they watch with anger France being humbled, weakened, damaged, downgraded.”»

… Language in France is a major issue. Politicians feel compelled to publish a book if they want to be taken seriously. Whether they actually write it is another matter — it is not considered proper to name a ghostwriter. [Nicolas Sarkozy] has put his name to three books, Hollande to at least four.

The latter is a master at the profuse and crisp vocabulary of the well-educated senior civil servant. The former, a business lawyer, tends to take liberties with grammar — and the French do not like that. …

Sarkozy believed that at the start of the 21st century, the French wanted a young, energetic, modern leader who talked like them, after 26 years under two aging presidents locked in old-time rhetoric. It turned out he was wrong. He has since assumed the sort of public restraint and presidential solemnity expected of their president by the French.