French president raises eyebrows with his preference for friendly pronouns

FRANCE: Sarkozy is signalling a break with past formality by preferring tu to vous, writes Lara Marlowe in Paris

FRANCE:Sarkozy is signalling a break with past formality by preferring tu to vous, writes Lara Marlowein Paris

What's in a second person pronoun? For France's new president, Nicolas Sarkozy, the use of the familiar tu has long been a habit. Now it's being interpreted as a symbol of the "rupture" he promised with France's recent past. "He is used to direct, simple relations with people, so he says tu a lot," explains David Martinon, Mr Sarkozy's spokesman.

When Jacques Chirac became president, a right-wing politician recalls, associates who had long addressed him as tu adopted the formal vous. It didn't occur to President Sarkozy's acolytes to switch grammatical gears.

Mr Sarkozy's informality extends to international politics. He raised eyebrows among protocol officers by telling the German chancellor Angela Merkel on the night he took office, "Dear Angela, I have confidence in toi." In French, être à tu et à toi with someone means you're their buddy. Mr Sarkozy is à tu et à toi with most European leaders, including Romano Prodi and Tony Blair, to whom he said tu on their second meeting. "He wouldn't say tu to a leader he doesn't know," Mr Martinon explains, "but the tutoiement comes very quickly."

The choice of tu or vous can be insulting, or an indication of superior rank. A common grievance of immigrant youths is that French police tutoient them, as if they were servants, small children or animals. The late president François Mitterrand famously snubbed another socialist politician who asked if they could tutoyer each other, replying with the formal "Si vous voulez". Although Mr Chirac said tu to Mr Sarkozy, Mr Sarkozy always used vous with the rival he succeeded.

Henriette Walter, an eminent French linguist, accredits all the tutoiement going on at the Élysée to the fact that Mr Sarkozy is 22 years younger than Mr Chirac. Young people tutoient more readily than their elders, but Prof Walter is convinced that vous will not die out: "The French need this tradition of showing respect," she says.

In journalism, public relations and universities, tutoiement is almost automatic. Yet university professors in the habit of saying tu to each other revert to vous when judging viva voce exams. Journalists on familiar terms call each other vous on radio or television.

The new French president says tu to all of his cabinet ministers; all but two say tu back to him. But as Le Canard Enchaîné reported, in cabinet meetings, some find it impossible to shed formality ingrained over a lifetime. Prime minister François Fillon couldn't help calling the president vous and, after Mr Sarkozy addressed Alain Juppé, the No 2 in the government, as tu, Mr Juppé went through verbal contortions to avoid using either tu or vous.

While Mr Sarkozy stakes a claim to fraternité and camaraderie with his tutoiement, his education minister, Xavier Darcos, seeks to end the lax habits that took root in the May 1968 student revolt. Most students and teachers still vouvoient each other, but the familar tu is creeping in.

"It's a question of respect and distance," says Mr Martinon. "Nicolas Sarkozy is not trying to keep a distance from his interlocutors. But there must be a distance between professors and students. The president keeps saying that he wants students to stand when a professor enters the classroom." Sociologists estimate that husbands, wives and children still vouvoient each other in some 20,000 French families, mostly aristocrats and traditionalist Catholics - and some children say tu to their mother but vous to their father.

Some French connoisseurs claim saying vous to a lover is terribly erotic. But in a 1796 letter auctioned by Drouot in Paris 10 years ago, Napoleon Bonaparte scolded Joséphine de Beauharnais, then his bride of three weeks: "In your letter number three of (the revolutionary month of) ventôse, you call me vous. vous, toi-même. Ah! Bad one, how could you write me that letter? It is so cold!"

Perhaps we should heave a sigh of relief that the English language dropped the use of "thee" centuries ago. "'Thee was in fact the equivalent of tu," explains Prof Walter. "But the grammar was reversed; now it's become more respectful than 'you', and is used only for God and royalty."

For non-native speakers, here's a safe rule for the quicksand of French second-person pronouns: always say vous until the other person uses tu, or asks permission to do so.