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

July 10, 1994|Scott Kraft | Scott Kraft is Paris bureau chief for The Times. He interviewed Jacques Toubon in the minister's Paris office

PARIS — 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.

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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.

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