The Académie Française was established by Richelieu in 1635 to protect the French language so, when it sounds the alarm, the country pays it the sort of fond, indulgent respect one shows an aged relative.
The académie published one of its most dramatic reports a few days ago.
"The invasion of Anglo-American subjects our language to mortal peril," Hélène Carrère d'Encausse, aged 92 and the "perpetual secretary" of "the immortals" told Le Figaro.
Six of the académie’s most eminent members combed the internet for eight months, searching out English words and expressions used by the French administration, public and private businesses, and local government.
Among the most worrying examples, says Carrère d’Encausse, were what the académie calls “indefinable lexical composite chimeras” – hybrids – which violate both languages.
Thus, "Let's cagnotte", is used to mean passing a hat around; "drive piétons" presumably refers to a pedestrian district. "Sarthe me up" and "Smile in Reims" are used to promote tourism. La Poste calls its parcel collection locations "pickup stations". Peugeot adopted the advertising slogan "Unboring the future".
"The situation is very disquieting," says Sir Michael Edwards, the bilingual poet who helped draft the report and the only Englishman ever admitted to the Académie Française.
“I had thought for some time that it was simply a passing fad, but it seems to be here to stay”.
In certain circles, in the business community, for instance, the French assume that a snazzy slogan in Franglais is going to win customers, which seems to me a bad bet
The académie says the use of English words flourishes on the internet and social media. It is the province of the urban elite and alienates less educated, less affluent French people who suffer from “linguistic insecurity”.
In a study by the Crédoc research centre, 47 per cent of those surveyed resented advertising with English words. Sixty per cent of those identifying as far left and 57 per cent on the far right said they were angered by the widespread presence of English words.
On the day the académie published its report, the far right-wing presidential candidate Marine Le Pen went to Villers-Cotterêts, where King Francis I decreed the primacy of the French language in 1539, to announce her "grand emergency plan to save the French language". The far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon makes similar statements.
Sir Michael Edwards says it is "worrying" that extremists might exploit the report to political ends, but adds that the académie can do nothing about that. He will turn 84 in April, and still takes a boyish pride in his celebrity as a Shakespeare scholar, his induction to the académie and the knighthood conferred on him by Queen Elizabeth during her visit to Paris in 2014.
“I was invited to the state dinner,” he recalls. “I actually sat at table with the queen.”
Edwards admits he is “a bit different” depending on whether he is speaking or writing in French or in English.
“I delight in writing in English, having this Germanic language with lots of Latin words and all sorts of effects which you cannot manage in French. And when I come back to French, I delight in something different, in la coulée mélodique of French, to use Paul Claudel’s expression.”
The French thought the language had reached a perfection from which it would never change, that there would never be any modification, that it was French eternally
The current English invasion is “through no fault of the English or Americans or indeed the Irish”, Edwards continues. “It is obviously a French problem; not an English or American problem . . . In certain circles, in the business community, for instance, the French assume that a snazzy slogan in Franglais is going to win customers, which seems to me a bad bet.”
Edwards sees something positive in the linguistic playfulness of the French.
“There is a kind of game going on, people playing with French and English and putting them together. If only this ludic expertise could be used on French, rather than this strange Franglais, which a lot of French people don’t understand.”
I note that French is a very rigid language. Could it be that the académie is part of the problem?
“The extreme formality and regularity of French has its own beauty,” Edwards replies. “The 17th century was an absolutely fantastic period for the French language; the century of Molière and Racine. But it was also the moment when grammarians really got hold of the language . . . The French thought the language had reached a perfection from which it would never change, that there would never be any modification, that it was French eternally.”
Edwards quotes the Catholic bishop and writer Fénelon, who wrote “an absolutely splendid” letter to the académie in 1714. “He says, ‘For a century we have purified the French language and in so doing we have impoverished it’.”