Manny Macron, thunders Le Figaro, has relegated France to the lower league of “small nations”, and French to the status of a “regional, provincial language”.
That mournful assessment has to do with the new French identity cards that aren’t, well, wholly French. Some rubrics feature the English translations of such bog-standard words as nom, prénoms and nationalité. And England isn’t even in the EU any longer.
This assails French national sensitivity, which is on the extreme side of brittle under the best of circumstances. Hence the cri de coeur in Le Figaro, followed by a similar outcry in all other media.
Most of the diatribes are animated by nostalgia for the good old times, when French was the world’s lingua franca. When German and Italian academics conversed even 100 years ago, chances are they were doing so in French. Today they are almost guaranteed to be speaking in English, such as it is.
That hurts, for the French love their language more than the English love theirs, and they attach even more weight to it as an essential part of their national identity. Yet people who love something are often dismayed that others may not share their feelings. And dismay leads to bitterness.
So this kind of resentment has been seething for quite a while. Yet those French hacks who resent les anglo-saxons for their cultural appropriation and linguistic imperialism are missing the point.
For the record, I share their anger over English becoming the universal medium of discourse. Yet my problem isn’t the downgrading of French or other tongues, but the damage this promiscuous use of English does to the language itself.
Every lingua franca in history has suffered attrition first and extinction eventually. Admittedly, English is unlikely to disappear the way, say, Latin did.
It will, however, suffer systematic oversimplification and vulgarisation. Since we are told, incessantly and wrongly, that language is nothing but a means of communication, it has to be reduced to a basic level for a communication between two foreigners to take place unimpaired. Otherwise a game of Chinese whispers may ensue.
(I recall asking a fishmonger in Amsterdam if he could prepare my red mullet for me. He laughed at what he thought was a funny joke – in Dutch, as in Russian, ‘to prepare’ also means ‘to cook’. On another occasion, I agreed with an English-speaking Frenchman that our times are indeed rotten – only to recall that in French temps means both ‘time’ and ‘weather’.)
But this is neither here nor there. The problem that the French feel so acutely has nothing to do with English. It has everything to do with the EU.
The immediate explanation for the new French identity cards saying nom (name), not just nom, is that the EU has issued a directive that all identity cards within its borders should feature at least two languages. Yet one has to delve deeper to find the real problem.
The EU seeks to create a single European superstate, which in effect means a single European empire. And a single empire presupposes a single official language, tying all the disparate groups together.
Every European empire in history has always had a central metropolis with outlying nations radiating from the centre. The languages of those peripheral nations were reduced to the status of local dialects used mostly by the lower classes.
Thus Latin was universal within the Roman Empire, with some Greek used in academic discourse. And all denizens of the Austro-Hungarian Empire had to know at least some German – if only to be able to follow commands in the army. (The Czech writer Jaroslav Hašek has much fun with that in his classic satire Good Soldier Švejk.)
Now, my friends may refer to the EU as the Third Reich, but it really isn’t, is it? Germany is the most economically virile and technologically fecund nation in the EU, but it certainly isn’t its strongest military power – France is.
And in any case, German, or for that matter French, can’t be adopted as the single language of a single state for all sorts of cultural and political reasons. That means in effect that not only French but every other language in the EU is reduced to the lowly status of a “regional, provincial language”. With the fine nuance that no central language exists.
Hence the demand for all EU identity cards to be at least bilingual – and English is only one possible candidate for the second language. I can’t quite see, say, Finnish cards featuring Romanian translations, can you?
Though the issue may seem trivial, it’s anything but. Rather it’s an indication of the cultural time bomb ticking away under the EU.
The desire to cock a snook at les anglo-saxons is all good and well, but it can’t function as the cultural adhesive binding the EU together. Christianity could conceivably act in that capacity, but no one considers this possibility seriously these days.
And in any case, relations among Orthodox, Catholic and various Protestant confessions, all present in the EU, have never been sufficiently cordial for any of them to have much unifying potential. None as hostile as divergent exponents of the same creed.
No one knows the time setting on the aforementioned bomb, but it’s bound to go off sooner or later, and my guess is sooner. The EU is a dead state walking – and it hasn’t even been properly born yet.