LOS ANGELES TIMES INTERVIEW : Jacques Toubon : Defending the French Language Against All Interlopers

Scott Kraft is Paris bureau chief for The Times. He interviewed Jacques Toubon in the minister's Paris office

A recent editorial cartoon in Le Figaro, the Parisian daily, showed an American soldier, circa 1944, stumbling in terrible French to greet an attractive young Frenchwoman.

"You can just say 'Hello, Baby,' " the young woman tells her suitor. "Jacques Toubon is only 3 years old!"

Such are the barbs being fired by newspapers and radio stations in France these days into the thick skin of Toubon, France's 53-year-old minister of culture. In just 15 months on the job, Toubon already has drawn flak for taking steps to protect the French language from the intervention of foreign, and especially English, words.

The Loi Toubon , passed last month by the National Assembly, requires companies to use French in advertisements and contracts. As a result, Nike, the athletic-wear manufacturer, has to find a suitable translation for its slogan, "Just Do It," and MacDonald's will have to find a new name for "cheeseburger." ("Hamburger" is OK; it's considered part of the French language.)

A second Toubon-authored law, which will take effect in 1996, will require radio stations to devote at least 40% of their music air time to French songs.

The new attempt at language protectionism has made Toubon the butt of countless jokes in the media. Some disc jockeys have begun referring to the minister as "Monsieur All Good," his last name roughly translated into English.

But this bothers Toubon not at all. He remains convinced that most people support his attempts to keep French pristine. His detractors, he contends, are a minority group of intellectuals and newspaper writers for whom "it is fashionable to insert foreign words into their speech."

Toubon is a longtime member of the conservative Gaullist party. Known for his harsh tongue on the National Assembly floor, he is viewed as a skillful political organizer. But, outside the law-making body, it is his considerable charm and dimpled smile that is most often mentioned by those he meets.

Toubon was born in Nice, the son of a croupier in a Riviera casino. His first marriage ended in divorce; he has remarried. He works from an ornate suite of offices where the Duke of Orleans and, later, Napoleon's brother lived.

Already a powerful figure in the government, Toubon will be a key figure in the coming year as conservatives begin choosing their candidate for president to replace the retiring Francois Mitterrand. Toubon will have to choose between his prime minister, Edouard Balladur, and Paris Mayor Jacques Chirac, who helped Toubon get his start in national politics more than 20 years ago.


Question: Let's begin with the Toubon Law to protect the French language. Why is it necessary?

Answer: There are two objectives. The first is an intrinsic one: to develop a way of guaranteeing that everything said and written in France can be understood by the entire French population. The Toubon Law will ensure that instruction manuals and explanatory leaflets for all products, whether domestic or imports, be translated into French. Contracts will be written in French so workers are able to understand them. And at scientific conferences, the French-speaking attendees will have to speak in French.

Our second objective is broader--to develop French translations for words used in industries such as electronics and computers.

Language is an irreplaceable capital for all peoples. If it is not preserved and modernized, it will no longer allow the people to express themselves, to understand each other or to communicate with the universe.

Q: In many fields, English has become virtually a world language. You oppose that?

A: We support the concept of linguistic pluralism. If, one day, all mankind spoke in one language, or rather in one international code, this would lead to a dramatic impoverishment of culture and cultural exchange, and, finally, it would mean a regression of humanity.

I do not think having everybody speak English or American English would be a sign of progress. On the contrary, progress is when each individual expresses his identity through his culture and through the language that is its foundation. This law is our long-term investment.

Q: But does the problem really exist? Is anyone in France confronted with a situation in which they are not able to speak their language?

A: Oh, yes. There are a lot of companies, French and foreign, who hire people with contracts written in English. This is discrimination--and it's illegal. It's the same for instructions for appliances.

In fact, it happens every day. When you arrive at Roissy (Charles de Gaulle) Airport, you can see billboards written entirely in English. Many foreigners tell me that when they come to France, they want to change their environment--not find the same one they have at home.

Q: You're speaking now of advertising billboards for companies such as American Express. But their audience includes Americans. Surely, you don't intend to stop them from reaching their clients.

A: Of course, we will not prohibit American Express from directing their ads to their English-speaking clients. But what we are saying is that for every billboard written in English, there should be one written in French.

Q: What about the words "American Express?" Those are English words, too.

A: American Express is a trademark, and we accept trademarks. No problem. Generally speaking, we accept all trademarks. Hamburger. Hot Dog. Pizza. There is no French equivalent, because they are American or Italian specialties. Or let's take goulash, the Hungarian national meal. Goulash is goulash. There is no word in French.

The same rule applies to the names of restaurants. A Pizzeria will still be called a Pizzeria. Tandoori, for an Indian restaurant, will be still be called Tandoori.

Q: So, some foreign words are OK and others aren't?

A: The issue here is not so much that a foreign language be used. On the contrary, I would like to see French people speak more foreign languages.

But the problem is that French people no longer speak French properly. And we are afraid that they may express themselves with the vocabulary, the syntax and the spirit of another language.

Some English-speaking people also worry that other English-speaking people distort the English language, what you call "Basic English." We want each language to remain a living language and not have a two-track system where we would have one international code for communications and the national language only for administration, education, etc. That would destroy languages.

Let me take a more concrete example. The word site in French means a beautiful place, a memorable place with historical value. This word has a positive meaning. But, more and more, the word site is used with the English meaning. A "site" has become just a place. An industrial site, for example. It is a distortion of its usage, and now it has lost its actual impact. Now, when one uses the word site no one knows exactly what it means. Is it something beautiful or something ugly? It would be better for everyone if the French person is capable of expressing himself by using words from the French language.

Q: How does this issue make you feel personally? Do you get angry when you hear English spoken by French people?

A: No, I'm not worried. I know full well that when it comes to the usage of language, only the French people and society make the rules. However, I think the state is responsible for the patrimony of a country. The responsibility of the state is not to police the usage of language.

All my law says is that, in certain cases, French must be used. The law doesn't fix rules of usage. That is the responsibility of the French Academy, the intellectuals and the popular users. The state's role is to increase people's awareness and, most of all, the awareness of young people--for whom the good usage of language is a vital skill. Let me take a concrete example. Today, unemployment is particularly high for young people just coming out of school. We have noticed that their major handicap is language skills. They do not know how to read or write properly, or even to write their own resumes or fill out an application.

It is not only culture that is at stake here. It is the lives of the people.

Q: But isn't your example more a question of education? Isn't this law too late?

A: No, I don't think so. The law and the debate around it is leading to a greater awareness, and this awareness will fall upon the parents, on the teachers, on the pupils. I have met several people who are now interested in knowing how their children are taught French. It's primarily a law against indifference, against negligence.

Q: How do you explain what the media thinks about this law? I have seen many articles poking fun at your law.

A: The people who are opposing me on this issue belong to a minority group of intellectuals, for the most part, and for them, language is not an issue. For them, it is often fashionable to insert foreign words in their speech. We have, on the contrary, other groups who agree that language is a means of social integration. This is the case of many young immigrants for whom the usage of French is a type of passport necessary to enter French society. The majority of the population is in favor of this law, but most often this majority is silent.

Q: You have insisted that this law is not directed only at English, and yet most French people see it that way.

A: This is not an attack against the English language. My law will essentially affect the English language, but it is not against English. It is intended to preserve the French language.

For example, if we have a new concept to name, we should not use the English language to name it. In France, we have never said "computer." We use the French word ordinateur . The same goes for AIDS. We say "SIDA," even if the disease was first discovered in the United States.

The point is that, if we make an effort, we can speak French without having to use English. Hence, I think, there is a bit of a misunderstanding. English and American newspapers say the French are doing it again--that we want to be different. But 120 countries already have such a law and many other countries are in the process of passing such a law. Moreover, 15 states in the United States also have linguistic laws.

Q: Will there be fines for language offenders?

A: In order for laws to be respected, there must be sanctions. These sanctions will be adapted to each case. If, for example, a working contract is not written in French, it will not be a legal document. If an ad is done in a foreign language, it will not be publicized on radio or television.

Fines will not be given for language misuse. It is only in a case of violent attempts to prevent the law from being enforced that a jail sentence will be given.

Q: How can you impose sanctions on advertising?

A: There will be fines, similar to tickets for speeding. A fine per billboard. But, most important, the objective is to encourage companies to make a French equivalent for every billboard made in a foreign language.

Q: So, you don't really mind if someone on the street says "cool?"

A: Cool. Yes, well, nowadays people think everything modern or young comes from foreign words. It is a trend from high school. I think we should try to show our young people that by using the word decontracte , instead of "cool," they are saying the same thing.

Television is imposing a cultural model made in the U.S.A. For example, the trend at the moment is to play street basketball, and this leads to children dressing like the American basketball players, walking like them and using the same vocabulary. This phenomena has always existed, but I think this may cause our society to break down into tribes. The ultimate risk would be that our Republic, our common thing, disappears. There is a lot at stake here.*

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