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Word of the day: Premier de cordée

Loved by some, hated by others, these are the ones allegedly pulling the metaphorical rope in France.

Word of the day: Premier de cordée

Why do I need to know premier de cordée?

It's an expression used frequently in French politics, both to praise and criticise the (super) rich.

What does it mean?

Before we take on the expression itself (and all its controversies), let’s look at the meaning of the word cordée. Cordée is a version of corde – rope. It comes from the Latin word chorda, which in the 14th century was used to say that something was garni de cordes – filled with strings.

Only much later, around the second half of the 20th century, did the expression premier de cordée achieve its current meaning.

Imagine that you're climbing up a steep hill. The premier de cordée is the person in front, both leading the way and safely securing the rope in case someone behind them falls. They carry a heavy responsibility – if they fall, everyone else falls with them.

Today, premiers de cordée is an expression mostly used as a metaphor, referring to those highest up on the economic ladder. A fair translation would be what the English call the upper crust, the super rich or the one percent.

Another French word with a similar meaning is gratin meaning the upper crust or upper layer of French society.

They're a controversial group. French President Emmanuel Macron sparked a storm of outrage when he, shortly after the election, used it to praise the country’s (super) rich. 

Je crois à la cordée […] Si l'on commence à jeter des cailloux sur les premiers de cordée c'est toute la cordée qui dégringole – I believe in the social rope […] If we start throwing pebbles at those highest up, the whole thing tumbles.

This is a common way of arguing against taxes targeting the super rich. The idea is that letting the rich be rich benefits the rest of the country by generating investment, businesses and job creation.

Les premiers de cordée empêchent les derniers de tomer dans le ravin – The people in the front ensure that those furthest back don't fall into the ravine.

But, as France is getting ready for a big strike on December 5th that could paralyse several key parts of the public service, the country is debating whether the premiers de cordée are doing much for les derniers de cordée – the poorest in France.

Francette Popineu, Co-General Secretary and spokesman of the national teacher's union SNUipp-FSU, which will be joining the strike, recently told The Local:

Je dis souvent que ceux qui sont les premiers de cordées, qui tirent les autres, n’ont rien dans les bras – I tend to say that those on the top, who are supposed to pull the rest of us up, are empty handed.

For more French words and expressions, head to our French word of the Day section.

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For members


French Expression of the Day: C’est le box

This French expression has little to do with storage devices.

French Expression of the Day: C’est le box

Why do I need to know c’est le box?

Because you might have described your adolescent bedroom this way.

What does it mean?

C’est le box roughly pronounced say luh box – comes from the longer expression c’est le boxon, and does not have to do with a container to store things. In reality, c’est le box means either literally or figuratively that something is a mess or disaster.

It is a synonym for the more commonly used French expression c’est le bordel

Both are slang terms that border on being vulgar, are originally references to brothels, and describe disorder or disarray.

The word boxon first appeared in the early 1800s in the form of bocson, which meant cabaret and later “house of tolerance”. Its origins are disputed, but over the past two centuries it has come to be synonymous with a “place of debauchery” and later messiness and disorder.

You can also say “Quel box!” or “Quel Boxon!” to mean “What a mess!” or “What a disaster!”

If you are looking for a less vulgar way to describe a mess, you could instead say “c’est le bazar”.

Use it like this

C’est quand la dernière fois que tu as nettoyé ta chambre ? C’est le box ici. – When was the last time you cleaned your room? It is a disaster in here.

Je ne suis pas la seule personne qui pense que c’est le boxon dans cette ville en ce moment. – I’m not the only person who thinks this city is a mess right now.