Socialist’s Off to War Over Grammargate

Nothing France likes better than a bit of cultural controversy especially when it involves the love-him or hate-him figure of conservative President Nicolas Sarkozy, now preparing the ground for a 2012 re-election bid.

François Loncle, the French Socialist who accuses President Nicolas Sarkozy of murdering the French language.

So when the Socialist opposition launched Grammargate the country paused to watch and listen. Here was an interesting bit of viande saignante for an otherwise weak and watery political soup.

The affair first broke when Socialist deputy François Loncle wrote to Education Minister, Luc Chatel urging him, in all seriousness, to do “whatever is necessary” to improve Sarkozy’s grammar which, declaimed Loncle, was eroding French culture at home and besmirching France’s reputation abroad.

Now that was la fin des haricots and the country sat up and listened.

After all other people’s politicians may duel over social benefits, unemployment, war, strife and famine, or squabble over sordid scandal and sleaze — not that France hasn’t had its share of the latter — but few, if any other nation’s politicians, would seek to stir the voters up with the cut and thrust of a Grammargate — cue much merriment in the chattering classes and ponderous pondering in the media. In France you see, le combat politique, is a refined and erudite art, a politician who can’t deliver telling phrases in the French of the literary salon, is well just horribly outré.

And therein lies the rub. For French Socialists pride themselves on being the heirs to a long tradition of leftist intellectualism with pamphleteering and politicking couched in the finely drawn phrase, the complex grammatical flourish and a lavishness of style and presentation.

The radical leftist politician François Loncle is a graduate of a superior school of journalism, so words are very much his arts et metier. (The fact that the president, albeit not with the best grades, graduated from law school and should, as his profession demands, be highly au fait with words, grammar, syntax and meaning, is beside the point.)

To the haughty derision of François Loncle’s headmasterly missive, Luc Chatel responded: “In these times of complexity and difficulty, [Nicolas Sarkozy] speaks with clarity and truth, declining “to use incomprehensible and convoluted syntax (un style amphigourique et les circonvolutions syntaxiques) that loses the listener and his fellow citizens. […]”

Ahh! amphigourique and circonvolutions, Grammargate really might, if the Socialists warmed to the theme, move from mere soupy entrée to a meaty main course in national pride. Politicians after all should lead by example, if a Frenchman does not honour and uphold his language no one else will do it for him.

So it came to pass that the good people of Tours, where the best French in France is said to be spoken, expressed themselves choqué (or they would have had they been asked) at a state of affairs where intellectuals on the Socialist left charged the country’s head of state with grammatical inexactitude.

Sarkozy’s sometimes twisted French syntax, tortured grammar, his abrogation of the convoluted imperfect subjunctive, were viewed with a cold and withering disdain by his political adversaries. Much ado indeed, yet, curiously, not a word was heard from the redoubtable cultural sages at l’Académie Française.

So to the presidential defence leapt his colleagues on the right to insist that when Sarkozy “parlait vrai” it was a deliberately populist strategy.

Was this to be the end of it? Surely Grammargate – filling the media as New Year 2011 got started — had the makings of a grande affaire ?

Well in truth probably not. Effectively Loncle’s bullfighter-like, yet non-fatal estocade was a Socialist move to wound and weaken their prey as the opposition party continues to cast around for a truly popular figure to lead it to victory in 2012.

Grammargate of course was timed to coincide with the 15th anniversary of the death, shortly after he left office in 1996, of François Mitterrand – the only Socialist in the life of the V Republic, who has ever made the left electable and whose passing decapitated the PS and left it still effectively leaderless.

Indeed Mitterrand, who started his political journey as a devoutly Catholic Conservative before moving progressively leftwards, enjoyed noble mastery of his mother tongue proffering refined and finely crafted speeches, clearly influenced by the religious cadence and metre of his early schooling.

The leftwing newspaper Rue89 says the contrast between the cultivated French used by Mitterrand and the manner in which the present inhabitant of l’Elysée expresses himself “cannot in truth escape comparison.” The paper quotes Mitterrand’s daughter, Mazarine Pingeot, as saying: “(Sarkozy) lowers the tone of the presidency […] uses a demagoguery and populism, which is unbearable. I never heard my father say a rude word in public …. At the very least when one is president, one is expected to avoid grammatical mistakes in speaking”.

And therein lies the rub. The president is under fire for acting and speaking like a pleb and the Socialists fear that this strategy of “talking straight” could well succeed in re-connecting him with his voters and secure his return to office, while Mitterrand-mourning Socialists look on haplessly.

So as they have yet to find their Mitterand 2.0, Grammargate seems set to forfeit its potential as a full main course and remain little more than an amuse-bouche. Ah well back to the kitchens camarades.

Story: Ken Pottinger

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