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February 12, 2007
The French. Again
A pair of recent news items about France and its language once again demonstrate the ridiculous lengths to which that nation will go in fighting a rearguard Anglophobic campaign. The estimable Betsy Newmark of Betsy's Page discovered the two items, and has her own insight to offer. But allow me to add some further thoughts.
The BBC reports that French unions temporarily have turned away from bashing capitalist employers and are now targeting the use of English in French firms.
This Anglais-phobia is old news, of course, other than the union embrace of the cause. The French have long put restrictions on English language content on television and radio. The French government announced plans a few years ago for a worldwide French language rival* of CNN International, slated for lavish subsidy. Not so surprisingly, I have heard almost nothing of this effort lately, and don't even know if it has succeeded in starting operations. The French government also made news some years ago for creating French language alternatives to English words and phrases used on the internet. Obviously, that effort has been equally lacking in impact.
But the unions are offering new grounds for concern: safety.
So M. Cuisiniez believes that his French unionists are so insecure that they would mislead their employers and lie about their ability to comprehend English, even if vital safety issues are at stake. Who needs les Rosbifs to caricature or bash France when their own trade unionists do such a splendid job of it?
Of course the fundamental problem is that the French didn't invent the internet. Instead, France developed a precursor technology, Minitel, a rather splendid use of the existing computer technology of the 1970s. Naturally, France being France, the state had a major role in directing the Minitel project. Its flaw was that Minitel was entirely centralized. The Minitel terminals were dumb, with no CPU of their own. All the action took place in Minitel mainframes. The distributed processing capability of internet smart terminals (i.e., your desktop of laptop or Palm Pilot-style computer) simply blew right past Minitel, and the world has ignored it.
This is rather reminiscent of the Japanese folly in developing the world's first high definition television. There, government planners and the state-owned NHK spent huge amounts of money perfecting HDTV. The only flaw was that it was an analog signal. Just as it appeared on the market, digital broadcasting was being developed out of the chaos of the free market American system. But once bureaucrats fix in stone the standards and plans, further technological developments tend to be ignored. Government bureaucracies rarely have the ability to close down a project just because it isn't working very well or a better approach is available.
The second news item regarding the French and their language is a bit more serious than the somewhat comic efforts of trade unionists. The Times of London reports that France is seeking to make French the benchmark legal language of the EU. In other words, when there is a dispute about the meaning of a law or regulation, the French language version will be regarded as definitive.
It is probably a good idea to have one standard language for the EU, but the last language that should be used is French. The French like to think of their language as a "the language of love." But it is also the language of dirigisme. The EU itself is dangerously undemocratic, top heavy with unchecked bureaucrats who issue regulations and are accountable to nobody. Handing over to French speaking lawyers the power to interpret regulations is, to employ P.J. O Rourke's famous phrase, like handing car keys and whiskey to a teenager.
Don't get me wrong. I am a great admirer of many aspects of French culture, and often defend the worthiness of many French endeavors. One of my grandfathers was of French origin. But France needs to adjust to the fact that it lost on the Plains of Abraham, it lost at Trafalgar, and it lost at Waterloo. It was rescued from German invasions twice by the hated Anglos.
Get over it! Look at Japan, for goodness sake. The Japanese happily incorporate foreign origin words in their language and require six years of English training to graduate high school. The Japanese have blown past the French and now find their cultural offerings (sushi, anime, etc.) tres chic all over the world.
France is being kept from realizing its considerable potential by a failure to acknowledge reality. In such a contest, reality always wins in the end.
* a reader kindly sent me a link to an update on France 24, the new television news service.
Thomas Lifson is editor and publisher of American Thinker.