Suzanne Fields

Pity the French, who don't care what you do as long as you pronounce it correctly. Their language, eloquent in nuance and precision and once the lingua franca of international diplomacy, has been swept away by the tide of English flooding the workplace, expanding in chancelleries and foreign offices the world over.

You might say English has become the "bete noir" of the French government, and the policy of state is definitely not laissez-faire. For a decade, French law has targeted the use of English in business and on the airwaves. Savoir faire has morphed into sour grapes, and we're not talking Beaujolais nouveau.

Last year the Culture Ministry imposed a ban on the use of the term "e-mail" in all government ministries, documents, publications and even on Internet Web sites. The General Commission on Terminology and Neology, which keeps track of such things with the eyes and ears of Big Brother, announced with perverse pride that "courriel electronic" - sometimes shortened to "courriel" - is what Internet surfers must use for electronic correspondence.

The latest grievance was filed by French employees of a General Electric subsidiary that makes medical equipment, who no longer want to struggle to use English in their e-mails, manuals and meetings. They're taking the multinational corporation to court, claiming that those who can't handle the English documents are denied promotion and suffer discrimination. The lawyers argue that the company is in breach of French law that decrees that all documents vital to effective work must be written in French.

If the suit succeeds, the legal precedent will force many companies to comply, in French. A company dealing in medical supplies, including X-ray machines, ought to be able to dictate that their employees learn the language of precision that everyone else uses. N'est-ce pas?

The French insist that this suit is not about hurt pride or the result of feelings of inferiority to their cousins in America (or England), but it's clear enough to everybody else that wounded pride is precisely what it's about.

From Jacques Chirac down (or up), the French can't get their minds around the fact that France has been pushed aside in world affairs by the United States. National pride took a beating when it was "le Anglo-Saxons," in M. Chirac's words, who rescued France from the Germans twice in one century. (How dare we?) Their humiliation and sense of loss deepened when English became the language of international air travel, even at Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris. English is the language spoken by most of the officials in the European Union.


Suzanne Fields

Suzanne Fields is currently working on a book that will revisit John Milton's 'Paradise Lost.'

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