Seilli?re, a satanic figure in the folklore of France's anti-capitalist masses, was lecturing the 25 leaders on the evils of le patriotisme ?conomique, the doctrine devised by Dominique de Villepin to justify France's current bout of industrial protectionism. That was enough cause alone to infuriate Chirac, but doing it in English was a provocation beyond his endurance. Seilli?re explained that he would use English because it is the language of business. It is also of course the common language among all but two or three of the 25 EU leaders.
The incident, only briefly reported in France, could be read as a fine example of France's Quixotic battle against reality. In truth, though, it said more about the way that Chirac and the governing classes are out of touch with much of their own the country. The resistance to English has long ago faded among the younger generation and the world of business and technology. Look at the French readers who join in the chat on this blog.
The fact that Chirac, who speaks fluent English and went to Harvard for summer classes in his youth, is absurd makes the whole affaire a bit more.... French! Bremner continues......
Chirac long ago banned his ministers from using English abroad. I have witnessed absurd moments at summits when ministers chat away in English and switch into French when the boss appears and then back into English when he passes. The same Thierry Breton, Finance Minister, who walked out with Chirac on Thursday, happily used English at a lunch for reporters in his Paris ministry on Wednesday.
For Chirac -- and even more for the poet de Villepin -- the language is the sacred essence of Frenchness, to be defended at all costs. This means hundreds of millions of tax-payers' euros per annum in the form of subsidies. These go to la francophonie, the community of French-speaking nations, which by the way includes Bulgaria, and to such extravagances as the Arte Franco-German television channel and Chirac's new baby, the CII, or Cha?ne d'Information Internationale (CII). This is the "French CNN" which Chirac commanded in the heat of the Iraq crisis to combat the global power of Americans and British news networks. Chirac has given the CII, which is supposed to go on the air by the end of this year, the grand mission of "bearing everywhere French values and France's vision of the world". The state-run channel was given another boost by the "caricatural reporting" by les Anglo-Saxons of France's riots last autumn. The gloating outside France was therefore inevitable when the CII's bosses suggested this month that le regard fran?ais sur le monde may be mainly broadcast.... in English.[my emphasis]
Bremner then switched to the French International Book Fair:
The Paris international book fair, which has just closed, made la francophonie its theme for this year........Chirac of course weighed in with the usual excess. "Defending la francophonie means defending a certain idea of culture, of the future, of that part of the universal which has always been born by France," he told the salon. The French language enabled everyone who used it to "express in the same language all the nuances of the human experience." Embattled French defenders might note that all the key words in that sentence came to English from French or its Latin ancestor. (...expriment, dans une m?me langue, toutes les nuances de l'exp?rience humaine). The President could also not resist his usual swipe at English. "Nothing would be worse for culture and civilisation than evolution towards linguistic uniformity," he told the book fair.
If you say so, you preening Gallic silly-boy. Even his compatriotes believe he is making a fool of himself, so as Bremner noted above, it is only the clueless Ecole Nationale d'Administration and the other Grandes Ecoles grads who exude that monadic sort of solipsism.
UPDATE: Chirac has explained his Brussels beau geste on behalf of the language today. "I was profoundly shocked to see a Frenchman express himself in English at the (EU) Council table. That's why the French delegation and myself walked out rather than listen to that."
Fighting to keep the place of French was a vital cause, he said. "It is not just national interest, it is in the interest of culture and the dialogue of cultures. You cannot build the world of the future on just one language and, hence one culture."
French reaction has varied, judging by the chatter around Paris. Gaullist MPs have praised Chirac's grand act in defence of the language while Le Monde mocked him in a front page cartoon. Some Socialist MPs said they were appalled that the head of state was making a fool of himself while his country was teetering on the edge of revolt.
Inspector Clouseau, move over, you have a competitor in the pratfall-in-public department!