Sunday

23rd Jul 2017

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.

Thank you for reading EUobserver!

Subscribe now and get 40% off for an annual subscription. Sale ends soon.

  1. €90 per year. Use discount code EUOBS40%
  2. or €15 per month
  3. Cancel anytime

EUobserver is an independent, not-for-profit news organization that publishes daily news reports, analysis, and investigations from Brussels and the EU member states. We are an indispensable news source for anyone who wants to know what is going on in the EU.

We are mainly funded by advertising and subscription revenues. As advertising revenues are falling fast, we depend on subscription revenues to support our journalism.

For group, corporate or student subscriptions, please contact us. See also our full Terms of Use.

If you already have an account click here to login.

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.

Poland 'leaving EU community of values'

Leading MEPs and legal watchdogs have raised the alarm on Polish judicial reforms, but the European Commission declined to speak out so far.

Security and defence to top EU summit

Pressure is mounting for social media platforms to remove any online content deemed to incite terrorism. Draft conclusions, seen by EUobserver, have made the issue a top priority in leaders' talks next week.

Cyprus talks up in the air

A week after the failure of negotiations to reunite the islands, Greek Cypriots are calling on Turkish Cypriots to reaffirm their commitment to the process.

News in Brief

  1. Polish parliament adopts controversial justice reform
  2. GMO opt-out plan unlikely to go anywhere in 2017
  3. Slovak PM threatens to boycott inferior food
  4. France takes Google's 'right to be forgotten' to EU court
  5. Turkey accuses German companies of supporting terror
  6. Israel's Netanyahu caught calling EU 'crazy'
  7. UK does not collect enough data to expel EU nationals
  8. Polish president threatens to veto justice reform

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. European Jewish CongressJean-Marie Le Pen Faces Trial for Oven Comments About Jewish Singer
  2. ACCAAnnounces Belt & Road Research at Shanghai Conference
  3. ECPAFood waste in the field can double without crop protection. #WithOrWithout #pesticides
  4. EU2017EEEstonia Allocates €1 Million to Alleviate Migratory Pressure From Libya in Italy
  5. Dialogue PlatformFethullah Gulen's Message on the Anniversary of the Coup Attempt in Turkey
  6. Martens CentreWeeding out Fake News: An Approach to Social Media Regulation
  7. European Jewish CongressEJC Concerned by Normalisation of Antisemitic Tropes in Hungary
  8. Counter BalanceOut for Summer Episode 1: How the EIB Sweeps a Development Fiasco Under the Rug
  9. CESICESI to Participate in Sectoral Social Dialogue Committee on Postal Services
  10. ILGA-EuropeMalta Keeps on Rocking: Marriage Equality on Its Way
  11. European Friends of ArmeniaEuFoA Director and MEPs Comment on the Recent Conflict Escalation in Nagorno-Karabakh
  12. EU2017EEEstonian Presidency Kicks off Youth Programme With Coding Summer School

Latest News

  1. Dutch coalition talks lengthiest in 40 years
  2. Polish parliament steps up showdown with EU
  3. EU urges UK to clarify its Brexit positions
  4. Law expert: direct EU powers have become too complicated
  5. Winter is here for Spitzenkandidat, but he'll survive
  6. Mafia money pollutes the EU economy
  7. Central Europe should be wary of Brexit stopping
  8. Poland's 'July coup' and what it means for the judiciary

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. EPSUEP Support for Corporate Tax Transparency Principle Unlikely to Pass Reality Check
  2. Counter BalanceEuropean Parliament Improves the External Investment Plan but Significant Challenges Ahead
  3. EU2017EEPM Ratas: EU Is Not Only an Idea for the 500mn People in the Bloc, It Is Their Daily Reality
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersCloser Energy Co-Operation Keeps Nordic Region on Top in Green Energy
  5. ILGA-EuropeGermany Finally Says Ja - Bundestag Votes for Marriage Equality!
  6. EPSUJapanese and European Public Sector Unions Slam JEFTA
  7. World VisionEU, Young Leaders and Civil Society Join Forces to End Violence Against Girls
  8. UNICEFNarrowing the Gaps: The Power of Investing in the Health of the Poorest Children
  9. EU2017EEEstonia to Surprise Europe With Unique Cultural Programme
  10. International Partnership for Human RightsEU-Kyrgyzstan Human Rights Talks Should Insist on Ending Reprisals Vs. Critical Voices
  11. European Free AllianceEFA Is Looking for a New Intern
  12. Malta EU 2017Conservation of Atlantic Tunas: International Measures Become EU Law