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A lost cause

Posted by Helen Thursday, October 14, 2004

Yesterday’s Le Figaro carried a rather sad little article. Well, I thought it was sad, though some people may laugh. Apparently, a number of French and international worthies, led by the author Maurice Druon, representing that august institution, the Académie française, have published a manifesto or an open letter to the European Council, demanding that French be nominated as the “langue juridique de l’Europe”, the legal or juridical language of Europe (by which they presumably mean the European Union).

This, as the newspaper says, is a last ditch attempt to stem the growth of English as the preferred language of that institution.

For a long time the EEC/EC/EU remained the only international body that produced its documents in French first and other languages, including English, late second. This has been changing, as, indeed, has the knowledge of French across the Continent.

Numerous researches have shown that even before the eastward enlargement English was the preferred second language in most member states. For a year or so before the actual enlargement the Institute française and other organizations spent a great deal of money trying to interest the applicant members in studying French, accepting French as the leading language and France as the leading country of Europe. This has not really worked, though I can testify that their Quatorze Juillet parties were magnificent.

In 1986, as Le Figaro points out, around 58 per cent of EU documents were first produced in the language of Molière, in 1997 around 40 per cent and now less than 30 per cent. They do, of course, get published in French, but only at the same time as in other languages. The language of Shakespeare comes first. Zut, alors. On ne peut supporter ça.

M Druon has collected signatures from outside France as well, though even Le Figaro appears to be somewhat bemused by the apparently highly important but, really, rather eclectic list: Mario Soares, former President of Portugal, Federico Mayor, former Education Minister of Spain and former Director-General of UNESCO, Suzanna Agnelli, former Italian Foreign Minister, Adrian Nastase, Prime Minister of Romania and Simeon Saxe-Coburg, Prime Minister of Bulgaria, Dora Bakyianni, Mayor of Athens, Bronislaw Geremek, former Polish Foreign Minister and the Albanian writer Ismaïl Kadare.

One fears that even such an illustrious list will not reverse the well-established trend. Surely, all these French and other dignitaries remember the failed attempt to prevent the usage of English words in the French language and the creation of franglais by law as well as the equally doomed attempt to force all French scientific conferences to conduct their sessions in French only. The latter came to nothing when French scientists protested that, should the law be passed, they would not be able to hold international conferences ever again.