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The World : Inside Dope on the U.S. Plot to Infiltrate French!

May 08, 1994|Bruce McCall | Bruce McCall is a frequent contributor to the New Yorker

NEW YORK — The MacDonald's on the Champs Elysee was almost deserted at 3 a.m. as I sat browsing through a paper while waiting for my contact so we could start littering the place with People magazines and National Stars.

It was then that the front-page Le Figaro article hit me like a Charlotte de Pommes Sauce Abricot in the face.

"The Government of France," it declared, "is officially supporting efforts to prevent further infiltration and pollution of the French language by imported English words and phrases."

So it had happened. We'd finally pushed them too far. Now there was sure to be--Uh, oh! Here came three of the French Academy's roving black-robed word goons, heading straight for the restaurant! Reflexively, I buried my telltale Anglo-Saxon face in the paper and scrunched down. Fool!! Why had I chosen a "Mighty Ducks" jersey to wear today? Idiot! No hope of covering it up with a Paris Review!

Whew!! Just another sweep to rip the Smashing Pumpkins concert and "Cops and Robbersons" movie posters off kiosks. Still, a close call. Could I stand the torture if they found me out? The round-the-clock pummeling of Piaf and Johnny Halliday over the P.A.; the only reading matter de Beauvoir's letters to Sartre about Camus and Camus' letters to de Beauvoir about Sartre and footnotes, footnotes, footnotes; forced to see "The 400 Blows," 500 times.

How long before I'd crack and our whole massive plot fall apart like a used Renault? Yes, we'd drugged Depardieu with California wines so he'd do English-speaking movie roles. The EuroDisney caper cost a fortune, sure, but "Have a nice day" was now part of their language. They might even uncover our prized double agent, Jerry Lewis, taking their praise and awards while swamping their lingo with half-wit English double talk that the poor fools lapped up like creme brule.

Mon Dieu! This campaign of ours to take over French, word by word, ran all the way back to the '20s and Gertie Stein's network of English-language moles disguised as expatriate writers and artists, boring away at their language from within. How long before they figured out that all those Sorbonne "exchange students" were, in fact, our agents, planting Danielle Steele and Judith Krantz novels between the volumes of Voltaire and Zola in the library, getting their orders and their supplies from a certain back room at Harry's Bar?

What were they going to do now? Make French travelers abroad wear earmuffs? Change the name of Paris Match to Paris Mzprfz? Seal off the Channel tunnel?

But regard the nondescript little man who'd just entered the MacDonald's and sat down at the next table, pretending not to notice me. A French teacher? Maybe they'd already intercepted my contact and her armload of English-language publications. Too bad. Nice kid. But she knew the risks.

No time for sentiment. I had to go underground. I paid my bill and, steering clear of Avenues Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, headed for the Metro.*

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