Walking proof of
Jacques Chirac walked out of a European Union summit on Thursday after a French
business leader spoke in English, adding linguistic patriotism to a simmering
row over economic nationalism.
As Mr Ernest-Antoine Seillière, head of the Unice employers’ federation started speaking to the EU’s 25 leaders, Mr Chirac interrupted to ask why he was
speaking in English, said a French official.
‘I’m going to speak in English because that is the language of business,’
replied Mr Seillière, former chief of the French
employers’ group MEDEF, which has been at odds with the government recently.
In a protest that sparked surprise among his EU counterparts, Mr Chirac then
left the session, taking French Minister Thierry Breton and Foreign Minister
Philippe Douste-Blazy with him.
But even though the language issue was important enough for Mr Chirac to walk
out, some others barely noticed it.
Swedish Prime Minister Goran Persson
said: ‘That was not dramatic at all.’
Besides Mr Seillière, EU leaders also heard from
European Central Bank government Jean-Claude Trichet,
who is also French.
Mr Trichet caused his own flap previously when he
spoke in English at the European Parliament in
Mr Chirac, 73, is an ardent defender of the Gallic tongue and his ministers
returned after Mr Seillière had finished.
English has overtaken French as the EU’s lingua
franca, especially since it welcomed 10 new member states, mostly former Soviet
communist bloc states, in May 2004.
Even in a globalised world where
English rules, ‘there is no language of business. There are as many languages as there are businesses,’ a French
diplomat said, speaking on condition of anonymity because Mr Chirac had not yet
addressed the issue.
The EU provides guarantees for all official languages of member states and has
an army of translators. Typically, officials at gatherings speak in their
native tongues and their remarks are translated.
Paris has long led a losing battle to keep French and ‘la Francophonie’
a dominating force in politics, business and diplomacy, only to see English
make ever deeper inroads. I has even had to fight a
tide of ‘Franglais’ - the use of English terms - at home.
Here is the report from The Times of
Chirac flees summit in a fury over use of English
only returned to the summit when it was the turn of a French speaker to address
the delegates (Yves Herman/Reuters)
CHIRAC stormed out of the first session of a European Union summit dominated by
a row over French nationalism because a fellow Frenchman insisted on speaking
Chirac and three of his ministers walked out of the room when Ernest-Antoine Seillière, the leader of the European business lobby UNICE,
punctured Gallic pride by insisting on speaking the language of Shakespeare
rather than that of Molière.
M Seillière, who is an English-educated steel baron,
started a presentation to all 25 EU leaders, President Chirac interrupted to
ask why he was speaking in English. M Seillière
explained: “I’m going to speak in English because that is the language of
saying another word, President Chirac, who lived in the US as a student and
speaks fluent English, walked out, followed by his Foreign, Finance and Europe
ministers, leaving the 24 other European leaders stunned. They returned only
after M Seilière had finished speaking.
meeting was furnished with full interpretation services, and anyone in the room
could speak or listen in any of the 20 official EU languages. Embarrassed French
diplomats tried to explain away the walk-out, saying that their ministers all
needed a toilet break at the same time.
the absence of his President, M Seillière gave
warning about the dangers of the “economic nationalism” being pursued by the
French Government. The summit, aimed at restoring confidence in the future of
the EU, has been overshadowed by a row over the tide of protectionism sweeping
the continent, with Tony Blair and Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor,
cautioning about the danger of raising barriers to foreign competition.
Chirac, who recently denounced British food as the worst in the world after
Finnish, has led an increasingly eccentric campaign to try to turn back the
growing dominance of English in the EU and across the world. French and English
are equal official languages in the EU, but the enlargement of the
Delors, the former President of the European
Commission, used to ban journalists from posing questions in English in the
President Chirac had a one-to-one dinner last year with President Bush, he
insisted on speaking his mother tongue the whole time, even though the
one UN summit where there was no translation, President Chirac pretended not to
understand questions in English and demanded that Tony Blair, who speaks
French, act as his interpreter.
Here is Charles Bremner’s
weblog on this issue. Charles Bremner
is Paris Correspondent for The Times and
has previously reported from
There is something
a little unhealthy about the way that the English-speaking world loves hearing
Often, though, the
guardians of Gallic linguistic purity are their own worst enemies and no-one
sets himself up better for mockery than Jacques Chirac.
On Thursday, the
President stormed out of a European summit in
The incident, only
briefly reported in
Older café waiters
may still respond to English-only customers with a withering blast of French,
but many deal with non-French patrons in English – whether they are Chinese,
Spanish or whatever. Few of the younger generation subscribe to Chirac’s view –
which he expressed on a visit to
The trouble is the
way that Chirac (an English speaker) and his predecessor François Mitterrand
(who spoke no English) turned the language into
an often comic crusade in the name of chauvinism (good French word). Chirac
long ago banned his ministers from using English abroad. I have witnessed
absurd moments at summits when ministers chat away in English and switch into
French when the boss appears and then back into English when he passes.
The same Thierry Breton, Finance Minister, who walked out with Chirac on
Thursday, happily used English at a lunch for reporters in his
For Chirac – and
even more for the poet de Villepin – the language is
the sacred essence of Frenchness, to be defended at
all costs. This means hundreds of millions of tax-payers’ euros per annum in
the form of subsidies. These go to la francophonie,
the community of French-speaking nations, which by the way includes
Chirac of course
weighed in with the usual excess. ‘Defending la francophonie
means defending a certain idea of culture, of the future, of that part of the
universal which has always been born by
UPDATE: Chirac has
Fighting to keep
the place of French was a vital cause, he said. ‘It is not just national interest, it is in the interest of culture and the dialogue
of cultures. You cannot build the world of the future on just one language and,
hence one culture.’
has varied, judging by the chatter around