17 March 2007

French: a different word for everything!

The subject of this post is politics and language. First, according to radio reports this morning, a dozen candidates for the French presidency claim to have been able to gather the 500 "sponsorships" required to "activate" their candidacy. The petitions had to be turned in by 6:00 p.m. yesterday. Eleven or twelve candidates to be the next President of the French Republic will be on the ballot on April 22.

Now it is up the the Conseil Constitutionnel to examine the potential candidates' petitions and certify that the signatures are valid and that each candidate really has the 500 required. The Constitutional Council is a body that rules on the constitutionality laws passed by the National Assembly (the parliament) and on matters having to do with elections and referendums. The council always has at least nine members — the presidents of the Republic, the French Senate, and the National Assembly each get to appoint three members.

Ex-Presidents of the French Republic automatically become members of the Conseil Constitutionnel as well. The only living ex-president right now is Valéry Giscard-d'Estaing, who was president from 1974 to 1981. Current president Jacques Chirac will become a member when he leaves office this spring.

One of the 12 candidates for president, the one about whose candidacy there is the most doubt, is the anti-libéral environmental activist named José Bové. Maybe you know about him. He's the militant who organized the dismantling of a McDonald's restaurant in the south of France a few years ago to protest against globalization, multi-national corporations, and so-called American cultural influence.

So what does anti-libéral mean? How can an environmentalist be anti-liberal? That makes absolutely no sense in American terms. It's a language issue, as you might suspect, and libéral/liberal is not the only pair of terms in French and English that can fool you unless you understand the differences.

In American terms, liberalism is progressivism as opposed to conservatism. A liberal is someone who is a free-thinker, who embraces new ideas, and who is willing to spend liberally to institute reforms and new programs. That's how I understand it. The American Heritage Dictionary definition of the word liberal uses terms like "broad-minded," "generous," "free from bigotry," "tolerant of the ideas and beliefs of others," and "not limited to or by established, traditional, orthodox, or authoritarian attitudes, views, or dogmas."

In French, le libéralisme, as the term is currently used, has nothing to do with all that. Libéralisme is the opposite of étatisme ("statism" or state-control) and socialisme. It's an economics term. A libéral believes in leaving the economy free to follow so-called "natural laws" of free enterprise, competition, and free trade, unimpeded by governmental intervention and regulation. In France, George W. Bush is seen as a "flaming libéral" (I'm wantonly mixing the two languages when I say that).

A French libéral believes in what we call in good Franglais "laissez-faire" economic policies. An American liberal is closer to what would be called a socialiste in France — that is, somebody who believes in putting the good of the many above the interests of the few, in helping the "disadvantaged," and in using government to foster reforms social progress. José Bové thinks the French government should more strictly regulate fast-food restaurants and, especially, ban the importation of genetically modified seeds and food products, which are seen as dangerous for the environment and for people's health.

And there's the word government. There's a corresponding French word, gouvernement, as you might know, but it has a very different meaning. The French president forms a government after she or he, or a new parliamentary majority, is elected. The American government stays in place whether or not a new president or a new congress comes to power.

I think we use the term government in America as shorthand for system of government. Our system of government is made up of the three branches: executive, legislative, and judicial. The executive branch presides over a huge bureaucracy run by cabinet secretaries appointed by the president and approved by a vote of the U.S. senate.

In France, which has had a hybrid presidential/parliamentary system for the last 50 years, the gouvernement is more or less what we call the president's cabinet in the U.S. The French president appoints a prime minister who in turn appoints a gouvernement made up of ministers (another confusing term, since a minister is a church figure in the U.S.). The ministers are the chief officials presiding over what is called l'administration in French.

Pronounce that [ahd-mee-nee-strah-SIAWn] because it's French. The administration in American terms is something totally different. The Bush administration is what in French political jargon would be called le gouvernement Bush.

And the French government — the bureaucracy corresponding to what we call the U.S. government — is called the administration in France. Is that clear?

One French friend told me that hearing that there's a "new adminstration" in the U.S. could almost make you think that all the government employees were fired and new ones took their place, since the French word for the government bureaucracy is l'administration. We know that doesn't happen when a new president gets elected. Only the gouvernement changes; the government employees, civil servants, keep their jobs.

Maybe I'd better stop now. My head is spinning, and maybe yours is too. But there are plenty of other pairs of confusing terms like these. More later...

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