12 October 2017
Does Macron need to mind his argot?
Why does his vocabulary matter?
By Richard Pooley
I am sending this article to Shaw Sheet’s esteemed editor a day early. I have no idea what his policy is on the use of swearwords in his august organ. But if you find he has resorted to asterisks instead of letters and are hence confused, blame him. I am writing in France, where I live, and here they don’t mince their words when speaking (although, come to think of it, mince is a common substitute for merde among older French people, just as sugar was for shit in the UK).
President Emmanuel Macron was in my part of the world last Wednesday, 4 October. He was in Égletons, just up the valley of the Corrèze river from Tulle in the old constituency and now retirement home of his predecessor and mentor François Hollande. He had come to open a training centre. He was greeted outside the building by employees of GM & S, a car parts manufacturer in La Souterraine, a town some 140 km by road from Égletons. They have been demonstrating for months, angry at the closure of their factory and the failure of its main customers, Renault and Peugeot, and the French Government to come to their aid. During his tour of the new centre, Macron was filmed by France 3 and BMTV giving his reaction to something said by one of his hosts, Alain Rousset, Socialist president of the Nouvelle-Aquitaine region to which the Corrèze department now belongs. Rousset told Macron about the problems the aluminium foundry at Ussel, 30 minutes away from Égletons, was having recruiting skilled workers. Boom microphone over his head, television camera pointing straight at him, Macron had this to say: “Certains, au lieu de foutre le bordel, feraient mieux d’aller regarder s’ils ne peuvent pas avoir des postes là-bas, parce qu’il y en a qui ont les qualifications pour le faire et ce n’est pas loin de chez eux.” 44 words. But the French media and France’s political class have in the past week, to a large degree, ignored all but three of them. Instead of focusing on the content of what Macron said, something which would have caused universal outrage in the France of his predecessors, they have expressed disgust at his use of a phrase, which though vulgar would not raise an eyebrow if heard in any bar from Marseilles to Lille.
The British press had a stab at translating what Macron had said. The Independent doesn’t seem to have enough money to employ its own translators; it quoted the Daily Telegraph’s clunky attempt: “There are some who, rather than wreaking f***ing havoc, would be better off seeking if they could get a job there, because some of them have the right qualifications.” Those were the Independent/Telegraph’s stars by the way. The online English language newspaper, The Local.fr, chose “stirring up shit” for “foutre le bordel.” The Guardian went all coy and offered “kicking up bloody chaos.” “Bordel” means brothel but is often used to mean a mess or chaos. “Foutre” is one of those French verbs you (or, at least, I) were not taught at school, yet which is essential if you want to know what the fuck is going on. It could be the verb used in the translation into French of the last part of that sentence. With its mate ficher, it is used in countless phrases, of which Je m’en fous and je m’en fiche are perhaps the most well-known, delivered with a full Gallic shrug: “I don’t give a fuck”.
Perhaps you have had enough of this vulgarity. One of France’s main television news presenters certainly had last Wednesday night. She was interviewing Christophe Castaner, the Government’s spokesperson, who told her that he could not see why the French president should not be allowed to use words that every French person used. “Not me,” she said. “I have difficulty saying it.” Castaner had described the president’s words as “banal”. This struck me as odd. The one thing Macron’s comment was not was trite. But then my wife, so fluent in French that a waitress refused last Sunday to accept she was British, put me right. Banal in French is not pejorative; it means commonplace or normal. Yet another faux ami (false friend) for me to remember.
By Friday, Macron’s own spokesperson, Bruno Roger-Petit, was giving a slightly different spin to his boss’ apparent faux pas (a phrase not used by the French; they would say impair). Apparently, Macron had thought it was a private conversation (ah yes, the kind with a microphone hanging over you and a television camera up your nose). Perhaps the President should have chosen his words more carefully. He would, of course, not use bordel in an official setting, as when giving a speech (So foutre is okay?). But he would continue to use such language in “une discussion officieuse.” (No, not a chat with an officious jobsworth; just an informal discussion). But it was the last point that Roger-Petit made which struck me as the most important: “Le chef de l’État ne retire rien sur le fond de ses declarations …” In other words Macron may have put it a bit crudely but he does not take back the underlying sentiment: If you’ve lost your job, get off your backside, stop messing around and find another one. It was Macron’s equivalent of Norman Tebbit’s 1981 “Get on your bike” remark.
But unlike the abuse which Tebbit got in the UK, the response in France to the content of Macron’s comment has been muted. A right-wing MP attacked Macron for his arrogance. One far left MP, Ugo Bernalicis, used Macron’s language against him: “That which is fout le bordel in this country…is getting rid of subsidised jobs…is raising the CSG…is lowering the APL.” No, I don’t know what the CSG and the APL are either. And I doubt if most French do. Monsieur Bernalicis suffers from that French disease, Acronymitis. And, of course, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the Marxist head of La France insoumise, was quick to excoriate Macron for once more denigrating French workers (since being elected in May Macron has, inter alia, accused some of being “fainéants” – slackers, illettrés – uneducated, and “rien” – nothing).
Yet in an interview on Thursday, Stéphane Le Foll, the Agriculture Minister throughout the last Socialist government’s five-year term, was not willing to criticize his old colleague. Nor the next day was another of Macron’s old Socialist partners, the former Prime Minister, Manuel Valls. He thought Macron’s words were unbecoming of the nation’s head of state but he “understood his sentiments” and, by not openly disagreeing with them, appeared to endorse them. He went on to say that he would be supporting Macron’s radical budget reforms in the National Assembly even though he is not a member of République En Marche, the ruling party. The online part of Le Point, a centre-right weekly magazine with 400,000 subscribers, asked its readers the following question on Monday: “Was Emmanuel Macron right to castigate ‘those who, instead of fucking around, should go and see if there were jobs available nearby’?” By the time I answered, 82.4% of respondents had said “Yes”.
I have some sympathy with those employees of GM & S whom Macron attacked. Though France 3 showed a straight line between La Souterraine and Ussel, suggesting they are a mere 110 km or 70 miles apart as the crow flies, those workers would have to move house if they took a job in Ussel. The two towns are, at best, more than 2 hours’ drive away from each other in this mountainous region. And while it is far easier to find affordable housing in France than in the UK, I doubt anyway if many of GM & S’s employees have the qualifications necessary to work in Ussel’s foundry. But do most French people share my opinion? It does not seem so.
Yes, there have been large demonstrations in the streets of Paris and other major cities since everyone got back from their summer holidays. And there have been the usual operations escargots – go-slows – in factories and, most annoyingly for commuters, by truckers on motorways. On Tuesday this week civil servants and state employees – teachers, hospital staff, railways workers and air-traffic controllers – were on strike. But the demonstrations have not turned into riots; the strikes are half-hearted and ineffective (Tuesday’s got third billing on the national news programme which I and millions of French people listen to); and REM’s majority in the National Assembly is ensuring that Macron is able to introduce the reforms that they and he were elected to enact.
The Professor of Political Communication at Science Po in Paris, Philippe Moreau-Chevrolet, told L’Express last week that Macron’s continuing use of coarse language is deliberate: “He wants to break the image of him as an elitist banker.” The professor believes that Macron wants to show those on the political right that he agrees with what they are thinking. What better way of doing this than using the argot of the street? I would only add that he must be confident too that such language will not put off his supporters on the centre-left. Presumably his old Socialist Party colleagues voiced similar views in private, probably in the same pithy way. The public reactions of such Socialists as Le Foll and Valls seem to show that Macron is right. We can expect to hear many more foutre le bordel-type language from the French president over the next few months.
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