A Francophone President in the White House?

This week’s New Yorker has a rather discouraging item for European anti-Bushites – e.g., most of us:


[W]hen John Kerry became the front-runner for the Democratic Presidential nomination [France 2 Washington bureau chief Alain] de Chalvron and other French journalists in Washington were understandably excited. They knew about Kerry: he went to a Swiss boarding school, he has a cousin who ran for the French Presidency, and he supposedly wooed Teresa Heinz by impressing her with his fluent French.

For a time, Kerry seemed equally enthusiastic about the French reporters covering his campaign. “He was quite accessible in Iowa and New Hampshire,” de Chalvron said the other day, in his office in Washington. “He understands French very well. His words are correct and sometimes even sophisticated. [..]

Everything changed, though, when, in recent months, Republicans started intimating that Kerry was too Continental. Conservatives complained about his touting of endorsements from foreign leaders, and Commerce Secretary Donald L. Evans told reporters that Kerry “looks French.” Right-wing talk-show hosts began referring to him as “Monsieur Kerry” and “Jean Cheri.” […]

Suddenly, Kerry appeared to develop linguistic amnesia. “During a press conference, I asked Kerry a question, on Iraq,” de Chalvron recalled. “He didn’t answer. In front of the American journalists, he didn’t want to take a question that was not in English.”

[Via Language Log]

In Kerry’s defence, this is neither unique to him nor to American politics. Jacques Chirac speaks quite good English. Apparently he was a soda-jerker somewhere on the East Coast in his youth. However, I have not found any reference to him speaking English in public in over a decade. It was even worse with de Gaulle, who spent much of WWII in London and had little difficulty speaking the language, but who would publicly admit to speaking only one foreign language: German.

Furthermore, there are many politcians who take advantage of a feigned difficultly speaking a foreign tongue to use the time the interpreter takes to compose better responses. But the biggest reason to behave this way is that there is a big difference between fluency in a foreign language and eloquence in it. There is a lot of tacit knowledge present in political lanaguge. Politicians have to carefully shade their answers and create the precisely correct level of ambiguity – a complex skill even in your native language, and a very difficult one in a second language.

Yasser Arafat, for example, got into considerable trouble for stating in an interview conducted in French that the PLO charter was caduque – a legal term meaning null and void. Arafat was saved by the ambiguity of language and a certain French fetishisation of dictionaries. His later press release claimed that he meant out of date, and provided the relevant reference to the Petit Robert to show that he was, in fact, speaking correct French. Had he used an interpreter, he would have had far more deniablity.

But in Kerry’s case, I suspect that this really is a sign of political cowardice. Kerry’s wife is essentially a native speaker of French and his own fluency is not exactly a secret. It would be unfortunate if provincialism became a prerequisite for high office in the US. It bodes ill for Europe when the only alternative to an openly anti-European president is someone who feels the need to prove his anti-European credentials, especially in such a silly way.

America’s founding fathers included several fluent French speakers. If it was good enough for Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Paine, it ought to be good enough for 21st century America.

This entry was posted in A Fistful Of Euros, Not Europe by Scott Martens. Bookmark the permalink.

About Scott Martens

Scott is a US-raised Canadian living in Brussels with his American wife. His political background is well to the left of centre, even for Europe, and is very interested in immigration, cultural integration and language policy issues. He is presently working against a deadline on his doctorate in computational linguistics and is on hiatus. Wrote Pedantry, also on hiatus.

22 thoughts on “A Francophone President in the White House?

  1. I read the article in the New Yorker. What struck me was a DeChalvron’s line: “For us, to speak any other language and have an open view of the world, for a President, should be a plus.” In democracy, leaders really represent the people.

  2. He looks french, i thought americans remained gripped to french stereotypes of beret wearing, baguette wielding images fo the french men with six cigarettes in his mouth. I think if this is the new perception maybe this war fiasco has actually made us progress our trans-atlantic relations!

  3. This was doing the rounds in March:

    “[Kerry’s] communication team is not very fond of the French media,” said Pascal Riche, Liberation’s Washington correspondent. Other than a brief television interview in French some time ago, all the French media can get out of Kerry these days is: “J’ai pas le temps” — or, as Tom DeLay might say, “I don’t have time.”

    Of course, I don’t read the Post, but Pascal Riche (vair nice) has a blog as part of Lib?’s election coverage.

  4. Scott, you can read not one but two Lib? journalists blogging in the US ! Fabrice Rousselot also has one. The annoying thing being that they have French-long vacations, and their blogs are frequently interrupted.

    Also, Chirac was interviewed by Larry King in English in 1995.

  5. I think the decision by Kerry not to speak French in public during the campaign is a political act, but I think ‘cowardice’ may be a bit strong a term for it. Simply put, there are very few votes (if any) to be gained by it and lots to be lost because ‘French’ has become political shorthand in the US for ‘Old Europe’ and thus footage of Kerry speaking French would probably be used by some on the Right to show how ‘he can’t be trusted/he’s just like them’ etc etc I don’t think, though, that he’s ‘proving his anti-European credentials’ by doing this, just not giving his enemies an easy stick to beat him with. The real test would be if President Kerry uses French in public life.

    On the question of Chirac speaking English, when he was on his recent visit to London a few months ago I’m sure he used it then when speaking to the press informally, but stuck to French for the formal press conferences. I could be wrong, though.

  6. “‘French’ has become political shorthand in the US for ‘Old Europe'”

    It goes a lot further than that. By many news reports, French Fries were taken off the menus for all the cafeterias serving Congress, evidently a huge escalation and, it seems, only a step or so down from breaking off what are euphemistically called “diplomatic relations” in this context.

  7. Bob,

    ‘French fries’ were not banned from the congressional canteen; rather, they were patriotically rechristened ‘freedom fries’.

    I only wish I were making that up.

  8. I have seen it stated (in French media, I think) that Chirac doesn’t use his excellent English in public as a calculated act of support for le francophonie, and defiance of the looming anglophone hegemony in international affairs. As always in situations of bilingualism, the social context matters.

    And if we’re doing that theme then what about the fuss that there is every time a Belgian official obliged by law to be bilingual, and genuinely bilingual in ability, steadfastly refuses to use the “other” language? (What do Catalan politicians do?)

  9. And how interesting (and perhaps quieter) it might be if all TDs (Irish MPs) were required to address the D?il solely in the first national language.

  10. Mrs T,

    What worries me most about all this is picking on John Kerry’s fluency in French as though the ability of an American president to speak a foreign language is a personal defect. That the Republicans in America evidently think it is speaks volumes.

    Heaven knows, I’ve picked many bones over French politics – despite my views on the Iraq war being closer to the mainstream European view point than to Blair’s – but it never occurred to me to smear anyone for their ability to speak more than one language.

    Don’t the Republicans appreciate what sort of impression of America that creates around the world?

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    “Chirac doesn’t use his excellent English in public as a calculated act of support for le francophonie, and defiance of the looming anglophone hegemony in international affairs.”

    In short, he uses it for political advantage with the home crowd – just like John Kerry.
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    Comment: My Public Key is at the following
    Comment: http://www.alapite.net/pgp/AbiolaLapite.txt


  12. Bob,
    Before you look down your nose any more, Bush speaks Spanish.
    It’s the language that Kerry speaks, not that he speaks another language, that is the issue in this context.

  13. Baltic blog: Evidence much?

    Bush did study Spanish in high school and in college and honed it in the oil fields of Texas, but probably couldn’t communicate at all in a debate completely in Spanish. The Spanish newswire EFE has reported that Bush speaks Spanish “poorly” but with great confidence. And Texas columnist Molly Ivins, no fan of Bush, has quipped that Bush is not bilingual/bicultural, but rather bi-ignorant.

    He can read a script, badly, and not much more. (And in Spanish, also.)

  14. “It’s the language that Kerry speaks, not that he speaks another language, that is the issue in this context.”

    To finally expunge any remote taint of a French connection in America, can we take that the Republicans propose expelling from the United States all the territories acquired from France in the Louisiana Purchase of 1803 at the instigation of President Jefferson?

    Without wishing to stir things unduly, I feel obliged to remark that polls across most of Europe were against national participation in the Iraq war, including in Spain and Poland notwithstanding the positions taken by the governments of those countries. In Britain, the majority in a recent poll was against the war. From recent reports, the Australian media has been taking an increasingly critical outlook on the conduct of the war.

    The Bush administration is doing grave damage to America’s international relations and its standing in popular sentiment, even among countries naturally friendly to America and Americans. Why not send Rumsfeld on another international tour to abuse friends and alienate more people? I’ve a long political memory going back through WW2 and the present US administration has become the most widely reviled in Europe that I can recall.

  15. I note that I read lots of conservative papers, and I have yet to see the one that call attention to Kerry’s ‘Frenchness’ or any such thing. Maybe it exists, but it certainly isn’t any sort of common charge on the right.

  16. The Republicans have a lot of trashy surrogates who manage to get the word out about Kerry’s Frenchness. Sebastian is a finer sort of conservative who doesn’t care to know what some of his friends are doing.

    Two of the worst publications for retailing shallow digs at Democratic candidates are the supposedly liberal Washington Post and especially the New York Times. Bob Somerby (www.dailyhowler.com ) documents it day-by-day. It would be very interesting to see a non-partisan outsider examine the New York Times issue in detail; the story is a strange one.

  17. Maybe some of you Brits can answer this question: does Tony Blair ever catch any flak for his ability to speak quite good (if heavily accented) French?

    After all, les Rosbifs have hated the Frogs for far longer than Americans have.

  18. I honestly try to do my own research, but I haven’t been able to find any specific articles with the ‘charge’ of Frenchness. I see people on the left talk about the ridiculousness of the approach, but it seems like an urban legend that conservatives care about how French Kerry may or may not look (or talk). I can think of dozens of reasons to dislike Kerry, but his looks aren’t a big deal. So, what articles are you specifically thinking about?

  19. A Google™ search yields 2,370 hits for “john kerry” + “french-looking”.

    Hit #1 is from Spinsanity.

  20. I wonder if part of the motivation for a politician’s not using a foreign language (especially in a country with a lot of monolingual voters, like the US) is a matter of control. If Kerry responds to a question in French, then any reporting of his response in the US will probably translate it for the readeers/listeners/viewers. It’s not just a matter of the politician doubting his ability to convey subtleties in a foreign language, but doubting the home press corp’s ability to translate them accurately (and with the desired spin) back to the mother tongue.

    There’s also the concern of exciting the distrust of paranoid monolinguists: “How do I know what he *really* said?” A half-clever politician might try to exploit the press corp’s laziness by answering in a foreign language, then issuing his own translation to the press corp, saving them the work, but actually slanting the translation differently than the original answer so it plays better at home. However, getting caught doing that would hand the opponent a big fistful of dirt.

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