France defends culture against English

March 15, 1994|By New York Times News Service

PARIS -- The French official, elegant as always, walked into the foreign ministry salon, bowed slightly and started, "Le briefing est off the record."

Soon, official use of such a phrase will be against the law if the culture ministry has its way. So will Fun Radio's un-French name and its babble by "le disque-jockey" about "le hit parade."

France's old and losing battle against the English language has moved into a new and touchy phase now that the government has presented a draft law to put up a barrier against further foreign incursions.

The law would ban foreign words from virtually all business and government communications, radio and television broadcasts, public announcements and advertising messages whenever a "suitable local equivalent" exists in French.

Labels on products and instructions for using them must include French. So must conferences and publications arranged by French citizens.

Violators could be punished with fines, so far unspecified, or lose state financing.

Officials at the Pasteur Institute, the renowned medical research center, said they were unsure they could continue three of its specialized publications, which have English titles and largely English texts.

In a nation where debates over language keep many people entertained, writers, actors, bankers and teachers already have warmed to the issue.

Participants have split into several camps. One sees itself -- and English -- as modern, hip, flexible. Another identifies with the glory of French culture. A third camp holds that while the other two exaggerate their claims, the world's cultural diversity is threatened by increasingly standardized products and the language of advertising.

The unnamed enemy is English, or rather its American varieties, which have burrowed their way into music, sports, commerce and science, undercutting elaborate French words and phrases with snappy expressions like "le marketing," "le cash flow" "le stress" and "le brainstorming."

Novelist Jean d'Ormesson, who defends his national tongue, called the bill ridiculous.

"Borrowed words have always enriched the language," he said.

But the government, heartened by its victory last December in retaining the right to levy taxes and set quotas on imports of U.S.-made movies, television programs and music recordings, seems determined to win passage of the law.

A majority of lawmakers in the conservative-dominated Assembly are in the government camp on the language legislation, as are a number of intellectuals.

Prime Minister Edouard Balladur recently inaugurated a Higher Council of the French Language and told its 29 members, drawn from different walks of life, that defending their tongue was "an act of faith in the future of our country."

Le Canard Enchaine, the satirical weekly, said the new law would have no more effect than a 1975 measure banishing foreign words from advertising and radio and television news.

"Language, like French genius, comes and goes," the weekly said.

"At the moment, neither is in good shape. Like the English in the past, we can't get used to the idea of being a second-rank nation."

Culture Minister Jacques Toubon, the bill's promoter, makes the opposite case, saying that the law would permit France to "better assume its responsibility" at the forefront of countries in which French is still widely used.

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