PRESIDENT CHIRAC stormed out of the first session of a European Union summit dominated by a row over French nationalism because a fellow Frenchman insisted on speaking English.
President Chirac and three of his ministers walked out of the room when Ernest-Antoine Seillière, the leader of the European business lobby UNICE, punctured Gallic pride by insisting on speaking the language of Shakespeare rather than that of Molière.
When M Seillière, who is an English-educated steel baron, started a presentation to all 25 EU leaders, President Chirac interrupted to ask why he was speaking in English. M Seillière explained: “I’m going to speak in English because that is the language of business.”
Now Msr. Chirac is a short sighted, pompous little man but I have no doubt he loves his country. If the French president cannot take umbrage over a slight to the French language no one can. Walking out was silly and pointless, Msr. Chirac would have done better if he stayed put and asked Msr. Seilliere to speak in French because they were both Frenchman.
France is peculiar in that national language is dictated by the state. Explains Agnes Poirier:
France must be one of the very few countries in the world, if not the only one, where the Prime Minister is officially in charge of national language policy. The Prime Minister's cabinet has direct authority over Le Conseil supérieur de la langue française. In France, one can use only words that are correct, authorised by law and sanctioned by the dictionary.
Which is why English has become the language of business. Like most things institutionalized by the state, the language will wither and die. It will not expand and be versatile enough to meet demands placed on it will fall into disuse. Chirac is right to defend his language but his methods for defending it are foolish.