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 didnt answer. In front of the American journalists, he didnt 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.