Queen Elizabeth at 90: Is she really fluent in French?

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Oliver Gee - [email protected]
Queen Elizabeth at 90: Is she really fluent in French?
President François Hollande and Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo (right) seem delighted with the Queen's level of French. Photo: AFP

On Queen Elizabeth's 90th birthday, it's time to examine how good her majesty's French really is.


Parlez-vous francais, votre Majesté?
The Queen, who celebrates the grand-old age of 90 on Thursday, speaks French. That much is sure. 
But how well? Can she say the number 90 in French without hesitating?
Her press team confirmed to The Local that she spoke French, but refused to go into any detail whatsoever, preferring to remain tight-lipped about the monarch's ability to speak Moliere's tongue.
Unable to get a direct line to the Queen, here's what we could find out elsewhere. 
The official website for the Royal Family describes the Queen's French as "fluent" (but let's face it, we've all exaggerated our language ability on our CVs before).
It also says she does not need an interpreter, so it must be fairly accomplished. But when does she really get to use it? We all know that a language is like a muscle and needs to be stretched regularly.
How often does she get to stretch her tongue? Certainly on state visits to France. Pictures from her 2014 visit show her apparently at ease as she wanders around a Paris flower market with President François Hollande and Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo, neither of whom speak English that well.
And below she can be seen giving instructions to Hollande as she boards the plane home, perhaps asking him to keep quiet about her level of French. Ma'am's the word.
("You don't say a word about my French." Photo: AFP)
Whenever she does speak French, the English-language press certainly get excited about it. Indeed, after she had a tiny French conversation with a 13-year-old last year, one paper went with the headline "Mon Dieu! Queen Elizabeth Speaks French at School Visit".
This, however, may speak more about the (lack of) French skills of the rest of the us than the Queen's impressive French.  
The Queen made her first state visit to France in 1948, shortly after her wedding. Since then she has been back five times on official visits.
And she often switches between English and French when giving speeches in France and other French-speaking countries, something she has been doing for some time.

In fact, there is video footage of her holding a nearly ten-minute speech in French when visiting Quebec in 1964.
Yes, she was reading the entire speech from cue cards, but her pronunciation was excellent. 
But just because she could read French well in 1964 doesn't mean she could waltz into a Parisian coffee shop tomorrow and order "un café à emporter" (or 'a takeaway coffee', for you non-French speakers out there) without being asked to repeat her order three times by a confused waiter.
More recently, in 2012, footage emerged of Sa Majesté speaking French with France's President Francois Hollande in what appeared to be an off-the-cuff conversation. 
She even took the small talk to an impressively high level (and quickly) by blaming the bad weather in the UK and France "on the jet streams, or something like that". 
This video is one of the most interesting of all. It's seemingly unscripted, for one, but even better - Her Majesty uses the word "jet streams" in English. 
This could be interpreted in two ways:
1) She knew that the French use the English word "jet streams" (suggesting she is an advanced speaker).
2) She panicked and decided to use a well-known tactic of just throwing in an English word during small talk (and hope to get lucky).
More perplexing still, the quick cuts on the footage leave a lot to the imagination. Was Her Majesty scrambling for her French-English phrasebook after every sentence?
We may never know. 
In 2014, she spoke again in French (and English) during the State Banquet for her fifth French State Visit at the Élysée Palace in Paris. 
In the clip below she makes the switch to French at the 27-second mark (watch Hollande's ears prick up) and again at 4min45.
Once again, the French sounds very impressive. But who are we at The Local - native English speakers (like the Queen) - to judge Her Majesty on her French?
We asked French language expert Camille Chevalier-Karfis, the founder of the language site French Today, for her opinion on the above videos. 
"Her reading skills were excellent - both pronunciation and rhythm were very good, but you could feel she was quite tense," she said.

"I was impressed by the quality of her French (yet, I bet she could read a speech in Chinese if need be...). No stuttering pour la reine."
As for the impromptu chat with Hollande, our expert says the Queen's response about her husband "was answered perfectly, but this is quite basic French".
"So, with these clips it's quite hard for me to say the level of French the Queen speaks. She seems to be understanding basic conversation and can read a speech perfectly, but I don't know how would she manage a whole conversation or watching a movie in French."
So it's unlikely we'd ever see her wandering around Paris holding a French phrase book, but nor will we see her sneaking into the cinema to watch a French language movie without English subtitles.
So she's probably pretty much at the same level as most of us. Except she's 90.




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