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LANGUAGE AND CULTURE

Language barrier: French resistance to Franglais

In the second instalment of The Local's opinion series Tête-a-tête, we examine efforts to shield the French language from the invasion of Franglais. We hear from a defiant Ministry of Culture in Paris as well opponents of linguistic protectionism.

Language barrier: French resistance to Franglais
French dictionaries are growing in size as new words are produced to rival Franglais. File photo: Tim Green

The French government’s recent decision to scrap the English word “hashtag” and replace it with the Gallic word “mot-dièse” not only sparked a Twitter frenzy but it also reignited an old debate over the future of the French language and an ongoing battle for the authorities to protect it from the invasion of "Franglais".

With English continuing to dominate the world of business, technology, science and even the offices of the European Commission where most documents are now produced first in English, the French language authorities could have been forgiven for throwing in the towel.

But they have not and continue to battle to promote and protect the French language. The word “mot-dièse” comes ten years after France threw the word email into its deleted items and asked people instead to use “courriel”. Two years ago a similar brouhaha was stirred when Paris scrapped a raft of IT terms such as “spamming” and “hacker,” replacing them with “arrosage” and “fouineur”.

But one of the problems for authorities is that the efforts of the fabled Academie Française and other government organizations are not always appreciated by their compatriots, many of whom believe they are wasting their time.

In this week's Tête-a-tête, The Local examines this divisive debate, hearing first from one of the guardians of the French language, Bénédicte Madinier from the Ministry of Culture, as well as from some of those Twitter users who ridiculed the authorities during the recent Hashtag-gate.

Is it right to invent new words to protect the French language from Franglais?

Yes, says Madinier…

“People say 'it’s impossible', or 'it’s ridiculous' to use a French word, but is it really? Is it really that ridiculous to ask people to use 'nuage' instead of 'cloud'? For some it’s just fashionable to want to use English, but like all trends, this will change. We found that up until recently a lot of young people would say 'c’est cool' but now more and more people are saying 'c’est frais'.

Is it really asking too much for people to use 'mot-dièse' instead of 'hashtag', and 'courriel' instead of 'email'? I don’t know why there was such a big reaction to 'mot-dièse'. We introduced some other new words on the same day but nobody talked about them. What people need to understand is that although there was a certain amount of ridicule on Twitter – a reaction we are used to – this does not reflect the views of all the French people.

Twitter users are mostly young people but I would say, go into the street, speak to people of all ages and ask them what 'hashtag' means? The majority of the population does not know what it is. I read an opinion poll that said 33 percent of the population were ready to use 'mot-dièse' from now on.

Someone emailed me recently to see whether we had a French word for Masterclass and I told them yes, it’s the same 'Classe de maître'. They were shocked and said, ‘we can’t use that, it's not fashionable enough', and I replied, 'Do you think the word masterclass is really fashionable in English? Of course not'.

It’s true that French is more rigid than English. In English you don’t hesitate to create words but in French we often have to check the construction and prepositions, and so on. French is a bit more timid but it’s not incapable of changing. We need to respect the language. We can’t just invent nonsense. If the word is well chosen and people understand it, then it will be used. The world is becoming smaller and we have to adapt.

We do not want to fight against English, but rather to promote the French language. It’s completely different. We are French, we are in France but we favour multi-lingualism. The prevalence of English is much greater now than before but not just in French, in pretty much all languages.

We don’t do this for our own pleasure. We need to show people that if you love the language, you need to use it. Some people are totally indifferent. They criticize us and say it’s ridiculous. But we need to show them that that attitude is dangerous.

The French language is alive and well. It is still an important international language. Obviously, everything dies out at some point, including languages (including English, for that matter) but for the moment, French has a bright future."

Bénédicte Madinier, is head of  development and enrichment of the French language at the General Delegation of the French Language and the Language of France (DGLFLF), a unit of the Ministry of Culture and Communication. The DGLFLF works to ensure the implementation of the 1994 Toubon law, which made French obligatory in government documents and state institutions and works with the General Commission of Terminology and Neologisms to develop new terminology.

No, say several Twitter users…

“I find it all impractical. We want to preserve the language, OK, why not? But instead of making it more user-friendly, for instance having simpler verb conjugations, shortening words etc, they prefer to force people to use words created from scratch when people are already happily using the originals, for example hashtag, manga or handball.

This kind of approach is totally ineffective. Does anyone in France really use the words baladeur (Walkman), coup de pieds de coin (corner kick) or even courriel (email). It borders on the ridiculous. We have a huge public deficit and we are paying people  to create words that no one uses.

Deep down, French people still have memories of France's previous grandeur, but we cannot accept that this is all in the past.”

– Jean-Francois Naud, a web project manager who tweets under @frenchpolitics

“I've always thought it was a bit silly and unproductive to make rules for the protection of the French language. The world is evolving, we live in the technological age, it's obvious people would speak English. Coming up with French equivalents of English expressions is to me a really useless idea —  and in the case of 'motdièse', actually ridiculous. 

I'm not sure I have the right solution to promote the French language, but I'd rather have festivals or poetry months or whatever, rather than measures that make the French look stupid.”

– Gaelle Laforest, a French national living in London. @gaellelaforest

“I actually support the idea to preserve culture, or language in this case. But banning the use of certain words is never even an option.

There are lots of other ways to encourage people to use their own language, i.e. through literature or poetry. Show them the beauty of their language instead of forcing them.”

– Twitter user ajeng @anjaparamitha

"From an educational viewpoint, teaching French as the natural second language in Britain is now outdated since Polish is now officially the second language of Britain. From an EU perspective, German is the most widely spoken language in the European community, with English being widely spoken, heavily used and well understood.

Logically, German and English should therefore be the two principally protected languages that are upheld for and by EU operations. Furthermore, German should become a natural second language taught in British schools, given its strong and wide presence in the EU and its relations.

Jacques Chirac was booed and jeered for using English at an EU summit in 2006, but the French people ignored the fact that their request for all EU legal operations to be conducted in French was a high and unrealistic demand."

– Rosie MacLeod, who presented a debate on protecting the French language for international debate association Idebate.org. Despite the argument she makes here, she describes herself as "staunchly pro-French language protection".

What do you think about France’s efforts to protect the French language? Tell us in the comments section below.

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CULTURE

Skulls, beer and a ‘cathedral’: Discover the secrets of underground Paris

You've certainly heard of the Metro, maybe the catacombs and perhaps even the Phantom of the Opera's underground lake - but there are some things lurking beneath Paris that might surprise you.

Skulls, beer and a 'cathedral': Discover the secrets of underground Paris

One of Europe’s most densely populated cities, Paris has over two million people living within its boundaries. As those inhabitants walk along the Champs-Elysées or Rue de Rivoli, they might be entirely unaware of the extensive underground world that exists below their feet. 

These are some of the hidden gems beneath the famous monuments in the City of Light:

Skulls, beer and police

The final resting place for over six million Parisians – the catacombs are the most well-known part of underground Paris, but did you know that the 1,700 metres of catacombs that are open to the public represent less than one percent of the whole of the catacombs in Paris? In fact, the underground network is thought to be around 300 km in size.

The catacombs are also known as the Ossuaire Municipal, and they are located at the site of former limestone quarries. The Ossuaire as we know it was created during the 18th century, because the city’s cemeteries could not withstand its population growth and public health concerns began to be raised. Gradually the remains of millions of Parisians were moved underground.

The bones of Parisians only comprise a small section of Paris’ ‘carrières‘ (or quarries), which can be seen in the above map.

These subterranean passages have fascinated cataphiles for many years – with stories of secret parties, illicit tunnel exploration and much more. During the Covid lockdowns, the catacombs infamously served as a location for clandestine parties. At one point, over 35 people were ticketed for participating in underground raves

The network even has its own police service, the Intervention and Protection Group, known colloquially as the cataflics, who are a specialised police brigade in charge of monitoring the old quarries in Paris.

Though these quarries might be a location to secretly throw back a few pints, they are also connected to beer for another reason, as they are the ideal environment to both store and make beer – with consistently cool temperatures and nearby access to underground water sources.

In 1880, the Dumesnil brewery, located in the 14th arrondissement, invested in the quarries underneath its premises, using them to store the thousands of barrels of beer that it produced each year. Over the years, the brewery simply turned its basement into a real underground factory. 

If you really want to visit the ancient underground quarries specifically, you don’t have to just go to the catacombs. You can also do so by visiting the “Carrières des Capucins.” Found just below the Cochin hospital, located in the 14th arrondissement, access to these tunnels is allowed to the public (with reservation) in small groups.

As for entering the rest of the old quarry system, that has been illegal to enter the old quarries since 1955, which has not stopped several curious visitors and explorers from trying to discover what secrets might be underground. 

Sewer Museum

Recently renovated, this museum might not be at the top of a tourist’s list in the same way the Louvre or Musée d’Orsay might, but the museum of sewers actually has a lot of fascinating history to share. It took almost a century to build Paris’ sewage system, and it is largely to thank for the city’s growth, protecting the public health of inhabitants by helping prevent disease outbreaks. 

Visiting the sewers is not a new activity either – according to the museum’s website, “as early as 1867, the year of the World’s Fair, visits were met with immense public success, the reason being that this underground space had always been hidden from the curious eyes of all those who dwell on the surface of Paris.”

Ghost stations

A total of 16 Metro stations go unused underground in Paris – some were built and never put into use, others were decommissioned after World War II.

The most famous is Porte des Lilas – a working Metro station that has an unused ‘ghost’ section which these days is used for filming scenes in movies and TV.

If you’ve ever watched a scene set in the Metro, chances are it was filmed at Porte des Lilas, which has a section of track that Metro cars can move along if needed for action sequences. 

The extra section was taken out of commission in 1939 due to under-use, and in the 1950s it served as a place to test new metro cars.

Beware if you find yourself in Haxo station – it does not have its own entrance or exit and is only accessible by following the Metro tunnels. It is one of the six that never opened, similar to Porte Molitor, Orly-Sud, La Défense-Michelet, or Élysée-La Défense.

Other stations were closed for being too close to other stations, such as the Saint-Martin station, which was closed after World War II as it was too close to Strasbourg-Saint Denis. 

These phantom stations are usually off-limits to the public, but sometimes access is allowed for special guided tours or events.

Reminders of World War II 

Paris’ underground played an important role during the Second World War.

First, there is the French resistance command bunker, which is now part of the Musée de la Libération at Place Denfert Rochereau.

It was from here that Resistance leaders co-ordinated the battle for the liberation of Paris in 1944.

There is also the anti-bombardment bunker near Gare de l’Est. Normally this is closed during the year, but it is opened on Heritage Day in September. (Journées de patrimoine). 

The bunker was originally commissioned in 1939 to keep trains running, even in the event of a gas attack, and it was completed by the Germans in November 1941. It is located between Metro tracks 3 and 4. The bunker itself – which can fit up to 50 people – has basically been frozen in time, featuring a control room and telephone. 

Another river

You’ve heard of the Seine, but what about the underground river that flows through the city of Paris? Prior to the 20th century, the Bièvre river flowed through the city as well, running through Paris’ 13th and 5th arrondisements. Once upon a time, tanners and dyers set up shop next to the Bievre, shown in the image below. 

The river eventually became quite polluted and concerns arose that it might be a health hazard, so in 1875, as part of his transformation of the city, Georges-Eugène Haussmann decided that the Bièvre had to go. It was mostly covered up, and now what remains of the river flows beneath the city, with some parts of it joining Paris’ sewage system.

The Phantom’s lake

If you are a fan of Phantom of the Opera, you would know that the Phantom’s lair is below the Palais Garnier (the Opera house), and that Christine and the Phantom must cross a subterranean lake to get there.

This body of water is not a figment the imagination of Gaston Leroux – though not an actual lake, a large water tank can be found below the grounds. It is even used to train firefighters to swim in the dark.

The Phantom’s not real, though (probably).

‘Cathedral’

The Montsouris reservoir is one of Paris’ primary drinking water sources, along with L’Haÿ-les-Roses, Saint-Cloud, Ménilmontant and Les Lilas.

But while it’s undoubtedly very useful, it’s most famous for its looks.

The structure resembles a kind of underground water cathedral and is home to over 1,800 pillars, which support its numerous vaults and arches. It’s closed to the public, but its rare beauty means that it’s often photographed by urban explorers.

Mushroom farms

And last but not least – the ‘mushroom houses.’ Les champignons de Paris have been grown below the capital’s soil for centuries.

READ MORE: Inside Paris’ underground mushroom farms

“Paris mushrooms” have been grown since the 17th century. The rosé des près (meadow pink) mushrooms were a favourite of Louis XIV and were originally grown overground – their colour comes from the limestone that Paris is build on.

By the 19th century they went underground, which provided more space and allowed the fungi to be cultivated year-round, but eventually the construction of the Paris Metro pushed many growers out of the capital.

Today, there are just five traditional producers in operation – Shoua-moua Vang runs the largest underground mushroom cave in the Paris region, spread across one and a half hectares of tunnels in a hill overlooking the Seine river. 

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