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French expression of the day: Au pied du mur

Why do people keep saying that French President Emmanuel Macron is at the foot of a wall?

French expression of the day: Au pied du mur
Photo: Annie Spratt/Unsplash/Nicolas Raymond

Why do I need to know au pied du mur?

Because it’s been everywhere the past few days, but it’s also a good expression to know at any time.

What does it mean?

Au pied du mur translates as ‘at the foot of the wall’, which is the French way of being pressed up ‘against the wall’ or ‘backed into a corner’.

Être au pied du mur means being in a difficult situation with few options left: “you are forced to act,” explains online dictionary l’Internaute, “you can no longer run away from a problem or a responsibility.”

The expression has been widely used by French media to describe the situation President Emmanuel Macron finds himself in, hard pressed to avoid imposing tough new Covid restrictions as the health situation keeps deteriorating, despite his desire to keep the country open. 


Originally the full expression was se trouver au pied du mur sans échelle, which means ‘finding oneself at the foot of the wall without a ladder’. This variant or the expression, which the l’Internaute traces back to 1593, “clearly shows the impossibility of getting out of a constraining situation”.

While today’s expression is shorter, the meaning remains the same.

Use it like this

On prend des mauvaises décisions lorsqu’on se trouve au pied du mur. – We make bad decisions when we are against the wall.

Ils avaient le sentiment d’être au pied du mur, c’est pour ça qu’ils ont fait la grève. – They felt like they were backed into a corner, that’s why they went on strike

Macron est au pied du mur. Il n’a pas vraiment d’autre choix que de nous reconfiner. – Macron has his back to the wall. He doesn’t really have any other choice than to re-impose lockdown.

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For members


French Expression of the Day: Mettre le holà

This might look like a mix of Spanish and French, but it is definitely not Franish.

French Expression of the Day: Mettre le holà

Why do I need to know mettre le holà?

Because you might need to do this if your friends go from laughing with you to laughing at you. 

What does it mean?

Mettre le holà – pronounced meh-truh luh oh-la – literally means to put the ‘holà’ on something. You might be thinking this must be some clever mix of Spanish and French, but ‘holà’ actually has nothing to do with the Spanish greeting. 

This expression is a way to say that’s enough – or to ‘put the brakes on something.’

If a situation appears to be agitated, and you feel the need to intervene in order to help calm things down, then this might be the expression you would use. Another way of saying it in English might be to ‘put the kibosh on it.’

While the origins of ‘kibosh’ appear to be unknown, ‘holà’ goes back to the 14th century in France. Back then, people would shout “Ho! Qui va là?” (Oh, who goes there?) as an interjection to call someone out or challenge them. 

Over time this transformed into the simple holà, which you might hear on the streets, particularly if you engage in some risky jaywalking. 

A French synonym for this expression is ‘freiner’ – which literally means ‘to break’ or ‘put the brakes on,’ and can be used figuratively as well as literally. 

Use it like this

Tu aurais dû mettre le holà tout de suite. Cette conversation a duré bien trop longtemps, et il était si offensif. – You should have put a stop to that immediately. That conversation went on for too long, and he was so offensive. 

J’ai essayé de mettre le holà à la blague sur ma mère, mais ils étaient sans pitié. – I tried to put a stop to the joke about my mother, but they were merciless.