French aghast at new English incursion to their language
April 17, 2008
Tucson, Arizona | Published: http://www.azstarnet.com/allheadlines/234733
PARIS — To the barricades! That's the message of language purists aghast that the lyrics of France's entry in a hugely popular European song contest are — mon Dieu! — in English.
Critics, including the French government, are adamant: Sebastien Tellier should not perform "Divine" at Eurovision — unless it is in French.
"A song represents the soul of a country," said Marc Favre d'Echallens, who heads a group dedicated to defending French against the growing use of English.
"It appears logical that a song representing France be a French song sung in French," he said, denouncing cultural "uniformity" and the "hegemony" of the English language in the world today.
It's the latest battle in a war France has waged for decades to defend French against the encroachment — some call it the invasion — of the English language.
The televised May 24 Eurovision contest, with entries from Andorra to Russia, drew some 100 million viewers last year — when France placed 22 out of 24 finalists, with 19 points.
Serbia's Marija Serifovic won with 268 points and a heart-wrenching rendition of the ballad "Molitva," or "The Prayer" — sung in her native language.
France's losing entry mixed English and French, with the lyrics "L'amour a la francaise let's do it again, again, again, again."
Wildly popular in Europe, Eurovision has lifted artists from obscurity to celebrity. ABBA won in 1974 with a song that spoke of another French defeat — "Waterloo." And Celine Dion's win in 1988, singing "Ne Partez Pas Sans Moi" (Don't Leave Without Me), helped launch her career.
This year's contest features performers from 43 countries. Eurovision bills itself as one of the longest-running television shows in the world, with the first contest in 1956. France has won 14 times.
France's entry, "Divine," — with only two lines in French — was chosen by France-3, the public television station.
France's minister for cooperation and Francophonie, or French speakers, issued a strongly worded statement Wednesday reflecting his disapproval.
"When one has the honor of being selected to represent France, one sings in French," Alain Joyandet said. He has urged Tellier and France-3 to consider changing the song.
Joyandet was scheduled to meet Thursday with an official of Tellier's RecordMakers label, Stephane Elfassi.
Tellier was not immediately available to comment on the uproar. However, his producer, Marc Teissier du Cros of RecordMakers, said the singer "is quite amused."
After writing the song in English, Tellier "tried to adapt it in French but it didn't work out," du Cros said.
"For me, this is yesterday's debate," he said. "Today an artist ... has the right to choose the language in which he wants to sing."
Still, Eurovision statistics show English holds sway in the contest, in which viewers pick the winner by phone and text message. English or mostly English songs have won 22 times.
More than half of this year's Eurovision contestants — 25 — will sing in English.
Lawmaker Francois-Michel Gonnot of President Nicolas Sarkozy's governing conservative UMP party, set the nation's indignation in motion, asserting that he has received mail from French-speakers as far away as Vietnam and Africa, urging him to take a stand.
"'Be careful,' they wrote. 'If you, the French, don't defend the French language, who will?"' Gonnot told Associated Press Television News. "France has the will to be a great power, and it relies on its history, a culture and a language that today is spoken by 175 million people across the world."
But, he added, French is a "threatened language."
Ironically, English, too, may be losing ground if the lyrics of Tellier's "electro" tune are any indication. Their meaning may test the linguistic mettle of even some native English-speakers: "Oh oh oh / I'm alone in life to say / I love the Chivers anyway / 'Cause Chivers look divine." The meaning of Chivers is unclear.
In 2006, then-President Jacques Chirac stormed out of a European Union summit when a French industrialist spoke in English — and called it "the language of business."
"We fight for our language. It is in our international interest," Chirac said.
For years, English words have crept into the French language: le look, le weekend, le hotdog. But these days, everything from the soundtracks for television commercials to the lyrics of French pop songs are in English.
In France, some words have now been legislated into French, like "logiciel" for "software."
Indeed, kings and emperors preceded staid lawmakers in deciding how the French should talk. In 1510, Louis XII ordered that legal investigations be written in French.
Favre d'Echallens said one possible riposte to the "Divine" song would be withholding public funding for France-3 television. He said the broadcaster, by picking an English song, was failing in its public service missions, which he said include an obligation to promote French.
"It is the French who pay (the taxes) ... Maybe the French want to hear a song in French," Favre d'Echallens said.
Parisian Robert Tordjman, 73, said he just hopes Tellier wins for France.
"If it allows him to win the contest, then let him sing in English," Tordjman told APTN. "We'd accept it."