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24th Aug 2019

Ashton to take lessons in 'language of diplomacy'

  • "Oui, je peux parler francais, mais je ne suis pas tres bien en francais," Ms Ashton recently told MEPs (Photo: ec.europa.eu)

EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton has accepted France's playful offer to teach her the 'language of diplomacy.' But EU parliament President Jerzy Buzek turned it down.

Ms Ashton told The Times, the British daily , in Brussels on Monday (22 March) that she aims to take a course at the Millefeuille Provence language school near Avignon, in southern France, before the summer despite her packed schedule.

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"I have just been talking to Pierre. I'm delighted. In fact I have already accepted," she said.

The French EU affairs minister, Pierre Lellouche, wrote to Ms Ashton and to Mr Buzek with an offer of free lessons at the Millefeuille academy on Friday on the occasion of the 40th birthday of the Organisation internationale de la Francophonie, a Paris-based body which promotes ties between French-speaking countries.

Ms Ashton, a Brit, speaks self-confessedly rusty French. But she takes press questions in English only, annoying French media.

The Lellouche letter carried a satiric sting in its tail, with the minister having in recent months led French criticism of Ms Ashton as lacking the right qualities for the top EU post.

"She speaks French: It isn't amazing, but she speaks it," French foreign minister Bernard Kouchner told EUobserver on Monday.

"It makes you laugh. But it was meant in a nice way," he added, speaking about Mr Lellouche's offer.

Meanwhile, the European Parliament's Polish president has declined the invitation: "He has too many other items on his agenda for now. Maybe it will be possible after the end of his term in office," Mr Buzek's spokeswoman said.

"Buzek already speaks fluent English, German and Russian as well as Polish. You don't hear [French President] Sarkozy speaking anything other than French," a parliament official added.

The EU has 23 "official languages," generating work of dubious value, such as translating a 1,500-page Syrian customs codex into Irish because it is to form part of an EU agreement. It also has three "working languages" - English, French and German - with EU officials required to speak at least one of the three.

English and French dominate life in the EU institutions in practice. French is by custom especially favoured in EU diplomats' foreign affairs meetings and in their electronic messaging system, Coreu.

French was the common language of diplomats in Europe for three centuries in the early modern period, with French terms, such as "demarche" (a formal diplomatic complaint) or "attache" (a low-level embassy official) still embroidering English speech in the field.

Asked if France will press Mr Ashton for a special status for French in the EU's new diplomatic corps, Mr Kouchner took a pragmatic line:

"There are no guarantees in the end. We have a right to speak French, so I speak French. But the big difficulty comes when there are no interpreters," he said. "Yes, one can speak French, but what if people don't understand? When we are 27 [EU ministers] alone, we can choose to speak French or to be understood."

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