Into the face of the young man who sat on the terrace of the Hotel Magnifique in Cannes there had crept a look of furtive shame, the shifty, hangdog look which announces that an Englishman is about to talk French.”
— P.G. Wodehouse, “The Luck of the Bodkins,” 1935
I know how that young man felt. I just got back from France, where I lived for more than a decade but never quite mastered the language. Nobody really does, not even the locals.
That’s because the French consider French to be pure, eternal, above the fray of slang and sloppiness. For centuries, the ability to speak it correctly was considered a hallmark of good breeding far beyond France. Catherine the Great made the Russian court speak only French. It has long been the language of diplomacy, though English is gaining.
France works hard to maintain its cultural clout. The country subsidizes Alliance Française outposts in 137 countries, offering French lessons, film festivals and other linguistic enticements. Since 1635, the national tongue has been protected from corruption by the Académie Française, a body of scholars that coins official French equivalents for foreign and technical terms.
Thus, a computer is an “ordinateur,” software is “logiciel,” a hashtag is a “mot dièse” and “to be cool” is “avoir l’air sympatique.” Still, foreignisms sneak in. Conversations are full of “meetings,” “shoppings” and “cocktails.” A French teenager once called me “hyper-cool.” I was hyper-flattered.
Now for the news (“les infos”). France’s obsession with protecting its traditions was on display in last Sunday’s crucial legislative elections. The headline is that President Emmanuel Macron lost his parliamentary majority and must now cut deals with hostile opponents.
But the real story is that far right parties gained enormous ground. These mossbacks say France is under attack from immigrants, gays, feminists, Islam, globalization. They want to withdraw from the NATO military treaty, make France more overtly Christian and restore lost national glory.
There is vast irony here. France’s national glory — like America’s — was attained BECAUSE of its historic openness to exiles, immigrants and foreign ideas.
Russians fleeing the 1917 revolution made France a global power in art, music, dance and science. Africans and Arabs uprooted by poverty and civil war enlivened the country’s culture and commerce. The most recent Prix Goncourt, France’s top literary prize, went to Senegal-born Mohamed Mbougar Sarr.
Americans helped too. Black musicians facing racism at home gravitated to France in the early 20th century. In her new book “Soundscapes of Liberation,” historian Celeste Day Moore tells how they brought with them jazz and the blues, rearranging the French musical landscape.
The French mock Americans for our factory food and excessive informality. But deep down they realize that, despite grumbling from our own political right, America’s modern economic and cultural dominance is largely a result of our openness to outsiders and new ideas.
P.G. Wodehouse learned that firsthand. Creator of the butler Jeeves, that unflappable avatar of Englishness, Wodehouse loved France and lived there for years. But some ill-advised broadcasts he made as a German prisoner during World War II made him unpopular in his home country. So in 1947 he moved to the U.S., where he continued to civilize American readers until his death in 1975.
Wodehouse set many of his stories in France and had great fun torturing its language — typically when depicting the efforts of visiting anglophones to speak French.
He would love the current linguistic scene in France. It’s teeming with exotic arrivals from afar. My current favorite is the North African word “kiffer,” which means to like something intensely — as in, “Je kiffe le jazz américain.”
The other day I ran across a very un-French word I thought was American. In a Paris taxi, I overheard a radio food show extolling the virtues of “barbecue.” My driver, a Haitian immigrant with a Ph.D. in charm, was delighted. “Barbecue,” he said, “is from Haiti. The French don’t have a word for it.”
I looked it up. Sure enough, the newest edition of the Académie Française dictionary of approved words now includes “barbecue.” Wodehouse would be pleased with that concession to foreign influence.
There’s a lesson for America here: Don’t reject immigrants and their ways. Instead, invite them to the barbecue. They’ll make us greater, richer and vastly more kiffable.