Monday, 11 June 2012

Linguistic Complaints

"French Law"; "En Danger De Justice"

 BY CC umjanedoan.

As a lazy English-speaker, I can't complain when it comes to the EU and language: there's no doubt about it, I'm in the privillaged group when it comes to communication. So there's very little I can add to Martin Holterman's rebuttal of Quatremer's complaints on the decline of French in the EU, except to highlight that in European law, French is still the top dog.

A good example is the European Court of Justice,* where French is the first language. So much so, that the application forms for interns is only in French. Perhaps someone can correct me, but I'm not aware of an EU institution that only has an application form in English.

The truth is that French is a privileged language in the EU - sure, not as big as English, but it's streets ahead of the most widely-spoken native language in the EU (German), and light years ahead of any other language. So there isn't really any call for alarmism over the Commission's economic assessments being made in English. After all, wasn't the Lisbon Treaty first drafted in French...?**

*Ok, the Court of Justice of the European Union if you want to be technical.

** Leading to Grahnlaw comparing the French and English versions of the provisions on citizenship.


  1. Some Frenchmen, it seems to me, have tended to be Europhile only insofar as they understand "Europe" to be an extension of "France".

  2. Quatremer may be wrong considering that French is a synonym of multilinguistic, but he raises a good point when he says that English cannot be the only working language of the European institutions. Especially if Great Britain considers leaving the EU in 2014.

    But not only.

    The hegemony of one language is part of the democratic deficit, it's part of the Brussels Bubble, it’s part of the feeling that Brussels is increasingly disconnected from national contexts. I know that using English is very trendy in Brussels, even among French officers and lobbyists working there. English only seems like the perfect solution, and defending multilinguism is an arrière-garde cause, just like nitpicking on the way linguistic versions are published.

    But the question is:
    - Can an English-speaking EU be representative and have democratic legitimacy?
    - How did we do so far? Was it so bad?

    The UN has six official languages. Why should we have only one?
    Sure, we could add Italian, Spanish and Polish. But shouldn’t the EU remain a multilingual community?

  3. @Julien-223: The UN has six official languages, the EU has three (working) languages, but in both cases I assure you that the vast amount of talking - especially outside meetings - is done in English.

    In the EU, French is still the law-language No. 1, with the chief jurisconsult (see, I don't even know a good English word) of the three institutions being usually French, and having been French since the dawn of the EC.

    (It looks like the Commission has a Spanish guy, but in the Council the French Jean-Claude Piris, who drafted every EU treaty since Maastricht, was replaced by the equally French Hubert Legal and the Parliament has the French lawyer Christian Pennera.)

    So while I don't know for certain, I wouldn't be at all surprised if the Lisbon Treaty was initially drafted in French. (Although ordinary legislation is always drafted in English first, with only MS amendments possibly in French or German.)

  4. I don't really see the problem considering the broader view. All States defending their language in international organisations (public or private) do it service by service, niche by niche, because cross-cutting approaches are totally inefficient for language promotion.
    Yes, French is still in abnormally strong in this or that organ. But the broader view shows us that it's globally in an increasingly minority position.
    Do you find it abnormal that among the 6 EU institutions, one of them speaks predominantly French? Perhaps, but what I tend to find abnormal is the fact that the EAES is not principally German-speaking, the Frontex Polish-speaking and the EIB Spanish-speaking... And that France isn’t defending this view of the EU.

    Considering what they are paid, European public officers can afford language classes. Actually, most of them do know French or German. Why don't we let them speak all the exotic languages they learn during their 10 year-long studies by putting them in a situation where they have to use them, like we do for non-British European public officers? Learning by practicing...

    More basically, what Quatremer was pointing is that it’s not acceptable to have major political initiatives published in only one language at the age of instant information, with translations coming one or two days later. I can’t find any objection to that.

    Once more, all this will have to be rediscussed when London leaves the EU. The EU is not like the OECD, it's not an economic agency. It's a political project having strong implications in terms of identity.

    NB: jurisconsult is also an English word, like half of the English vocabulary :) Linguistic purism doesn't lead anywhere...

  5. @Julien-223: It's not a question of being able to speak French. Realistically, everyone in the EU-Institutions speaks excellent French, and all functionnaires (another French word!) speak excellent French and English. It's a question of network economies of scale. Just like there is only one standard for mobile telecommunications in Europe, GSM, conversations tend to converge on just one language. (Trust me, I've tried to get other people to speak French or German to me while I reply in English, but it makes people's heads hurt.)

    The only reason why anyone speaks anything other than French in official meetings (except maybe in the EP, where people have lower language skills) is because they are under instructions to do so. I've heard French enarques speak flawless English with their neigbours, only to turn around when the meeting started and insist on being the only one speaking French. Funny story: During my time in Brussels, the Prime Minister of France sent a leaflet to all French citizens in the institutions, even the functionnaires, urging them to speak French whenever possible. The purpose of this still escapes me.

    You mention legitimacy, and so did he, but I really don't get how that is supposed to work. Like I said in the blog post that Craig refers to in the original post, if us Dutch, Swedes, Poles and Greeks can get used to the EU making laws in a language other than our own (never mind the Basques, Frysians and Roma), why can't the French?

  6. O, and jurisconsult is technically an English word, but Merriam-Webster defines it incorrectly, equating it with the equally non-proper-English "jurist", and I've never heard anyone use it outside the EU Institutions. There's a whole language of Eurospeak, which includes going to reunions and calling everyone's boss their director. It's a fun and inevitable consequence of mixing two languages together. (I could give you Italian examples too, from my current place of work.)

  7. Of course we could all consider that the English spoken in Brussels is no longer the British English but that it's turning into a Eurospeak - a lingua franca

    I agree with you and I must say, personally, I find this idea very attractive and I hope it'll be accepted someday.

    The problem is that there are 65 Mn French and only 20 Mn Scandinavians in the EU, and that only 5,5 of them have the Euro.
    Poles don't have the Euro. Greeks soon not anymore.

    Many of these 65 Mn French people are sensitive about multilinguism, that's a fact you can't change. And this leads France to disgusting attitudes on international arenas, I agree, just because we consider languages as a political issue, not like an economic one (like you strangely do).

    But just like there has to be a balance between the ordo-liberalism from Northern Europe and the somehow less regarding economic policies from Southern Europe, there has to be a balance between Germanic, Latin and Slavic languages in the EU.

    What I'm telling you is: French people are like this, you won't change them, the EU won't change them. The EU is about compromise, not uniformisation.

    Finally, comparing French people to Frysians, Basques or Roma is pointless, really.

  8. Finally, comparing French people to Frysians, Basques or Roma is pointless, really.

    Why? Because there's more of them? That's like St. Augustine's answer to the question of what the difference is between the navy of Alexander the Great and a pirate: "Alexander has more ships." There has to be a better answer than that.

    I am a Dutch person. Am I entitled to demand that everyone if Brussels always speaks Dutch? If not, why would a French individual have the right to make the equivalent demand for French?

    The parallel you draw between the question of languages and the question of ordoliberalism (!!!) is beyond me. Unlike the question of which language to speak in, economic policy is a question that allows for compromise.

  9. ___Why?

    First, because France has some power. Dutch and Etruscans don't.

    Second, because in democracy, numbers of inhabitants do matter (i. e. QMV in the Council). Making French a working language of the EU only requires only 3 working languages. It's politically reasonable, France can afford demanding that. Making Dutch a full-fledged working language would require a total of 8 working languages (Italian, Spanish, Polish, Romanian, Dutch). Can the Netherlands make such a demand? No, it's politically ridiculous.

    Finally, because multilingualism doesn't mean that all languages are entitled to an equal status and to access to all arenas. French is useless in financial markets. Yoruba is not a language for winter Olympics.
    Seeing no limit to the rights of all language community is the same as negating multilingualism. It's like the mistake made by Occitan-speaking activists when this language was declining: they standardised it, they wanted to make it universal. And that’s exactly what accelerated the death of this language.
    Switzerdütsch speakers understood that: if they want their dialect to live, it has to remain local. Switzerdütsch is not made for the UN.

    You want all languages to be equally dominated by the English hegemony. I want to put some diversity wherever possible. That's all.

    ___why would a French individual have the right to make the equivalent demand for French?

    They don't. You're reaching the limits of a honest discussion.

  10. Who was saying anything about working languages? French is a working language, but apparently people like M. Quatremer don't think that that is enough, they want French to be used all the time. If the European Commission dares to write a rapport in English instead of French, they scream bloody murder. Hence my question: What gives French people, or any European citizen, the right to demand that the EU Institutions only ever use their language?

  11. Ok. And what makes Dutch people so damn boring?

    See, I'm also able to exaggerate and generalise.

    Discussion pointless. I stop here

  12. The language issue is a thorny one, and I don't pretend to have a thought-out position myself on this. I'd like to see more linguistic diversity, and my impression is that there is actually more linguistic diversity at the conversational level, with the 3 working languages taking over for drafting etc., and English (or occasionally French) becoming the main language for meetings.

    Linguistic diversity is needed for legitimacy, but there are some limits - essentially practical, and it's hard to define what the cut-off point is for working languages. The current model of the 3 working languages with 23 official languages is probably the most workable one, but with more work needed to encourage more day-to-day use. As for giving primacy to different languages in different institutions: how do we decide past the big 3 what languages are suited to certain topics?

  13. Sure, my idea to develop the use of other languages is absolutely unrealitic, but I just meant it would be normal to develop the use of slavic languages in the EU institutions for instance.

    I have no problem with English becoming the language for internal meetings. But communication is something else. The Commission makes a terrible mistake when it ives preference to English in its external communication. Lady Ashton in particular is showing how inefficient the exclusive use of English can be (refusing to make any statements in French about the situation in Congo whereas Rehn and Pielbalgs have made huge efforts to use French in their communication with African and French politicians) (