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June 8, 2003 Opinion

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This Week: Two Canadian writers explain the French to us, or, do words really matter?

Last Monday, June 2nd, Jean-Benoît Nadeau and Julie Barlow published an opinion piece in The Toronto Star -- "In Defence of French Eloquence" -- that caught my eye.  And it wasn't the spelling in the title.  Having worked in London Ontario for a number of years I know those Canadians spell things in the British manner.  Fine, they don't want to be Americans like the rest of us, and insist on announcing the weather with those Celsius numbers, and on driving distances in kilometers (kilometres) and not miles, which is what we real Americans do down here.  I imagine most of the folks south of the border see these things as harmless eccentricities.  The Canadian dollar coin, with an engraving of a loon (the bird) on one side, they call a "Loonie."  And the two-dollar coin they came up with a few years ago they call a "Toonie."  Fine.  Not a serious people, perhaps.

And indeed the Canadian government did not join us in our most recent "serious business" - they did not join the "Coalition of the Willing" (COW) for this recent war with Iraq, not seeing the effort as necessary business for self-defense, for responding to a really "clear and present danger" to our immediate safety here in North America.  Generally, they seemed to be a bit squeamish about joining us in the invasion of another country, about the elimination by force (overthrow) of its sovereign but nasty government without a whole lot of agreement from any other countries in the world that that was a good idea, and about a lengthy occupation until, one way or another, a new government got itself organized over there.  They didn't see what a great idea that was.  Something about our set of solutions troubled them.  Or maybe it was the acronym of those who joined us in the war -- COW.  Who wants to be part of a cow?

So here was this article, "In Defence of French Eloquence" in the left-of-center Toronto Star.  It seemed to be two Canadians explaining the French problem. 

France was the country that most clearly and adamantly and publicly argued that this invasion, overthrow and occupation we're doing with Iraq might be a stunningly bad idea.  Here was going to be an explanation of this odd position, of why the French thought the way they did, and thus acted as they did - as my conservative friends say, ungratefully stabbing the United States in the back in our greatest hour of danger and need, and after we saved their sorry, cowardly butts in the last two World Wars.  So Jean-Benoît Nadeau and Julie Barlow were going to explain.  This was of interest to me. 

And they open with some words on French Foreign Affairs Minister Dominique de Villepin's new book, eight hundred pages of poetry titled, In Praise of the Thieves of Fire.  And they mention that the Minister of Education, Luc Ferry, recently published an essay titled To All Who Love School.  This is followed by a review of how the British and American commentators have reacted to such nonsense, the general gist of which is that this just proves the French are not a serious people. 

We know this de Villepin guy writes a lot, a history of Napoleon here, poetry there, and he's a suave devil who dresses well, and he runs marathons and seems to have a sense of humor, and he's awfully articulate in English too.  This really ticks off the folks here who argue fancy words don't matter, because the only thing that matters is what you do.  Folks here don't cotton to glib, fast taking foreign folks. 

The argument is that this is exactly what the French like, a whole lot.  As these two Canadian writers put it -

...it would be political suicide for a French foreign minister to say, like U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell did last week, "Uni-polar, bi-polar, multi-polar, I don't know what those terms mean."  In France, you would never hear such a high-ranking politician as Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld defend his lack of polished language skills with a heartfelt, "I'm from Chicago."

The bulk of the rest of the essay reviews how the French educational system works, and how it seems to have created a culture that values using language well and accurately, if not elegantly.  Heck, it's a culture where, if this Ferry fellow is right, people actually like school and learning, and think teachers should be respected and well-paid.  How odd.

The result is a culture where what you say and how you say it matters, because language matters.  This pulls one back to the old argument - if you cannot explain something clearly you probably don't understand it; that is, clear language is necessary for clear thinking, not sufficient, but necessary.  Hey, if you cannot explain what you mean then maybe you don't know what you mean. 

The counter-argument, of course, is what you hear about how our current President operates.  He does not bother with details.  He does not read much or get all introspective and thoughtful.  He doesn't like fancy arguments.  He responds from "gut feeling" and trusts his instincts.  He doesn't like talk.  Very un-French, of course. 

Should we wish to get along with the French, and now it seems with the Canadians, this article hints that there is a whole lot of work to do for either side to understand the other.  But it is clear we probably don't want to get along with the French, and that we see Canada as amusing and irrelevant.  So what does it matter?
For my friend who will be in France for the first time this autumn, considering such differences will, of course, help clarify some behaviors he is likely to encounter.  And it will explain the endless talk shows on the television in his hotel room - prime time discussions of books on anthropology or art?  Indeed.  And folks there watch that stuff like we watch college football or West Wing or Survivor.   Odd. 

Of course over there Friends is on every night, dubbed in French, and Canal Plus carries a dubbed version of The Simpsons.  We had Star Search, then TF1 had Star Academy, then we just had American Idol.  And watching the Eurovision Song Contest will either put you in a coma or drive you mad.  There is crap everywhere.  This Toronto Star item covers only part of the picture. 

Jean-Benoît Nadeau and Julie Barlow are the authors of a book, Sixty Million Frenchmen Can't Be Wrong.  See  http://www.sixtymillionfrenchmen.com/content.htm for details, the table of contents, and some excerpts.


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7 June 2003