Why have we chosen the expression?
We noticed the expression in a news headline this week (see pic below) that was discussing an opinion poll that compared the popularity of the current leader of the centre right Republicans party compared to ex-president Nicolas Sarkozy, who remains a popular figure on the right.
Current leader Laurent Wauquiez “n'arrive pas à la cheville de Sarkozy” the opinion poll revealed.
So, what does it mean?
The expression literally means that a person does not come close to someone's ankles.
This expression is used to compare two people in a pejorative way – saying they don't come up to their ankles infers they are very inferior to the other person. So the real meaning of the headline above is that a survey revealed that people did not like Wauquiez nearly as much as Sarkozy.
There is another similar expression in French with the exact same meaning is “Il ne lui arrive pas à la ceinture” (he doesn't come close to his belt).
In English we would say that a person cannot “hold a candle to someone”. So poor old Laurent Wauquiez is just not in the same league as old Sarko.
Although this expression is thought to date back to the 18th century, it is commonly used in everyday written and spoken French.
1. Ce danseur est très bon, mais il n'arrive pas à la cheville de Michael Jackson.
This dancer is very good, but he's not anywhere as good as Michael Jackson.
2. Un an après le lancement de ce nouveau produit, la concurrence ne lui arrive toujours pas à la cheville.
One year after the launch of this new product, the competition is still nowhere near as good.