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20th Sep 2019

Francophiles seek primacy for language of Montesquieu

  • "French is best at precision, it has a rigour to it," the committee said. (Photo: EUobserver)

Prominent EU francophiles are proposing that Europe's "most precise and rigorous language" - French - be "authoritative" in the case of legal interpretation problems, in a move seen by some observers as a "rearguard battle against the demise of French."

The European Parliament on Wednesday (7 February) saw a visit by a group of eminent members of the Committee for the Language of European Law (CPLDE) - meaning French - raise the alarm over the problem of EU legal texts having different meanings in the union's now 23 official languages.

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The pack of francophiles included the parliament's ex-president Nicole Fontaine, former Romanian prime minister Adrian Nastase, Polish MEP and history professor Bronislaw Geremek as well as Antoinette Spaak, the daughter of ex-Belgian foreign minister and EU founding father Paul-Henri Spaak.

The CPLDE - also supported by EU nobility such as Germany's Otto von Habsburg and Bulgaria's Simeon Sakskoburggotski - is headed by French writer and secretary of the Academie Francaise Maurice Druon, who told Brussels journalists that "the language of Montesquieu is unbeatable."

"The Italian language is the language of song, German is good for philosophy and English for poetry," Mr Druon said. "French is best at precision, it has a rigour to it. It is the safest language for legal purposes."

The CPLDE proposes that French should have the ultimate linguistic primacy in situations where EU officials or politicians are squabbling over what an EU text actually says when written in several languages.

"All languages are equal and all the national sensitivities are duly protected. However, as regards the interpretation of texts it is better to be certain what we are writing," said Mr Druon.

He argued that French should be "the authoritative" language as it is both related to Latin - in which Roman law was written - as well as the language of the Napoleonic code.

Tower of Babel

EUobserver in 2005 came across one case of classic EU linguistic interpretation trouble, where different languages appeared to point to different degrees of political power for the European Parliament.

When written in English or French, the 1999 regulation for the appointment of the chief of the EU's anti-fraud office OLAF seemed to completely sideline MEPs, saying "after consultations with the European Parliament and the council [member states], the commission shall appoint the director."

But in other language versions, such as German and Polish, the phrasing stipulates that the decision will be made "after the agreement of the European Parliament and the council," sparking confusion among EU officials at the time.

Officials said that currently, the language having ultimate legal primacy is the text in which the legal act was originally drafted - a situation which is untenable, according to Mr Druon who inevitably referred to the biblical tower of Babel.

"An elbow length was not the same for Egyptians as it was for Syrians," he said. "All these people were quite competent but at the end the tower collapsed."

"That is precisely the situation we are in the European Union at the moment," said the French Academie Francaise member who however suffered a public correction by Ms Fontaine for using the English term "understatement."

'Rearguard battle'

Some observers present at Wednesday's press conference expressed scepticism about the initiative, suspecting that it was not so much triggered by legal concerns but rather born out of frustration with the general decline of the French language in the EU.

"They don't want to say it, but they are raising the alarm on English getting more and more predominant in the institutions," one parliament insider said.

"It's a rearguard battle against the demise of French," said another observer working in the parliament.

Paul-Marie Couteaux, a French MEP for the Mouvement pour la France which defends French sovereignty, vented frustration with the fact that many MEPs do not know what they are voting about because draft resolutions and amendments are only available in English.

Referring to a vote in the parliament's foreign affairs committee on Kosovo last week, he said "the text was only in English and in Czech. I have worked at the UN so I understand English. But many of my French and other colleagues did not understand a word of it."

"This happens much more often. People come to me and ask: can you please tell me what I am voting about?"

A parliament official explained that draft political texts for MEPs are often born in last-minute negotiations between parliament officials and MEPs' assistants having to communicate rapidly and efficiently.

"There you have an Italian, a Pole and a Lithuanian. And they speak in a language they all understand - normally English. That's perfectly normal," he said.

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European People's Party group leader Manfred Weber defended Ursula von der Leyen's decision to rename a commission portfolio, partly dealing with migration, "protecting the European way of life". He said it means rescuing people in the Mediterranean.

Hungary claims EU 'witch-hunt' over rule of law hearing

Hungary was quizzed by EU ministers over its domestic crackdown on media, judges, academia and NGOs. Hungary's minister responded by saying the country had defended "the European way of life" for centuries, and it should be respected.

EU divided on how to protect rule of law

Poland and Hungary have argued that rule of law is purely a domestic matter and the EU should respect legal traditions, but Dutch foreign minister warned backsliding was a worry for all.

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