Summer is here, and with it a bout of outrage at the lingua franca
You know it’s officially la saison des marronniers (silly season) in France when a somnolent country suddenly gets up in arms for a Great National Cause nobody really paid attention to before. Win extra points if you can somehow accuse the government of dereliction toward a national symbol! Double those if it has to do with the English (language, fishermen, PM, food, football team, whatever)!
This time, it’s Emmanuel Macron who’s kick-started the summer’s most tantalising clickbait, right between stories on masks-only beaches and the best recipe for a true Salade Niçoise. His entry? Introducing a new national identity card.
The carte d’identité nationale is a mandatory card that has existed for exactly a century, although a passport, issued by the same government office, can replace it anywhere. (I haven’t renewed my CI since it expired in 2008, and I’ve never been taken to task over this dog-eared plastic-laminated piece of paper — in fact, it is 15 years out of date).
The replacement for the carte d’identité, is credit card-sized, laser-engraved, memory-chipped and made of supposedly non-tamperable polycarbonate. You’d think, after the recent demonstrations that saw almost a quarter million people across France protesting against the erosion of civil liberties, the uproar would be over privacy issues (the identity card contains a number of your distinctive biometrics and a QR code). Mais pas du tout. Forget about your fingerprints eternally recorded on a silicon wafer; the real scandale is that the card’s inscriptions are captioned in English under the French version.
“What we see here is a gesture of linguistic submission!” thunders the Québecois Le Figaro columnist Mathieu Bock-Côté. “The State no longer intends to embody the fundamental identity of France…but agrees to pilot a symbolic transition…to internalise the demands of the anglicisation of the world.” Phew. The Académicienne Française Barbara Cassin is equally up in arms. “Why only English?” she wails, calling the decision not to use a third EU language on ID documents — mandated by a Brussels Directive — “symbolic stupidity”.
Worse, the decision was taken after Brexit: it confirms the “supposed” place of English as the “universal language of communication”, even though it is no longer one of the main languages of the EU 27. “The State itself… consents to its own linguistic downgrading and cultural folklorisation,” bemoans Bock-Côté in his 1,600-word rant in a piece he wrote five months ago, but which has been hastily updated on Le Figaro’s website.
That’s some boulder on our collective shoulder. It’s not any foreign language we object to. What we hate about English is that it’s winning the battle. In the late 19th century, the Third Republic built national consciousness on the eradication of local languages — Breton or Occitan children daring to speak the regional tongue in primary schools were harshly punished. Today we find ourselves the Bretons of a larger bloc, one we bought into, yet which is betraying us and our particular exceptionalism.
I have no beef with English captions on my new CI (when I get round to finally getting one). And I can’t help noticing that not only my current passport but the previous one (delivered 2003) carry English translations. After all, the Paris Métro announcements now blare in seven languages (French, English, German, Spanish, Italian, Japanese and Chinese) that you should beware of pickpockets on the line, and nobody has yet whined that the first victim of robbery here was the French language itself.