English is the more compact, French the more precise. English is considered democratic and modern, French elitist and elegant. English tends to evolve naturally, French is jealously protected by a powerful literary establishment.
A new broadside in the long-running linguistic war was fired this week when leaders of 42 French-speaking countries gathered in Paris to celebrate their common cultural identity and consider how to meet the challenge posed by the ever-increasing dominance of English. Preceded by more than two decades of preparation, and arguments over the representation of Canada, it was the first such meeting ever held.
If little was actually done to threaten the hegemony of English, at least a lot of French got spoken.
Once the common language of Russian aristocrats and Austro-Hungarian ambassadors, Asian communists and South American writers, French has declined over the past few decades, mirroring the decline of France as a world power. But it is still spoken across the five continents -- from the Canadian province of Quebec to the South Pacific island of Vanuatu.
The most urgent issue facing the conference, which ended today with a decision to meet again in Quebec in two years, was the preservation of French as an instrument of scientific and technological communication. Participants expressed alarm at the increasing number of computers, robots and cars that are programmed to understand English language commands only.
"Must we translate into English the orders that we give machines?" President Francois Mitterrand asked a recent meeting of the French Academy, a unique institution founded 150 years ago with the task of protecting and developing the language of Molie re.
Mitterrand's anguished question went to the heart of the problem of French as a living language competing for its place in the modern world. For while French has long been regarded as the natural language of diplomacy and cuisine, it has been relatively slow to adapt to changing fashions and technological innovation. In a world in which English is increasingly becoming accepted as a universal language, French is getting squeezed out.
According to French government estimates, French is still spoken fluently by 120 million people -- of whom 60 percent live in Europe, 26 percent in Africa and 10 percent in the Americas. But it is on the retreat in several parts of the world, notably North Africa, where educated young Tunisians and Algerians now prefer Arabic to the language of their former colonizers.
A recent study showed that the number of articles written in French in the world's leading scientific reviews had dropped from 12 percent in 1980 to 7 percent in 1984.
The advantages enjoyed by English as the world's leading technological language were brought home to Mitterrand during a visit two years ago to California's Silicon Valley. When he asked Apple founder Steve Jobs for an opinion on French software, he was given a brutal reply: "The problem with French software, Mr. President, is that it's written in French. You can't sell it."
This week's Francophone summit called for the creation of common data banks and software in French in addition to cooperation in areas like filmmaking, book publishing and television programming. Numerous speakers echoed Mitterrand's warning on the first day that the French-speaking world risked being condemned to the status of "subcontractor, translator or interpreter" unless they closed ranks.
To keep pace with American computer terms, the government set up a "Computer Technology Commission" whose job it is to think up French-sounding expressions for words like "debug" and "floppy." The commission has had some success: Most French hackers, for example, now use the word "logiciel," rather than the ugly "le soft," for "software." But the commission has also discovered that French uses roughly 20 percent more space than English to say the same thing.
Other linguistic watchdogs include the General Commissariat for the French Language, which attempts to keep the language pure by issuing periodic lists of Anglicisms that should be suppressed. The latest list, published in the official gazette, called for the replacement of "le scoop" with "l'exclusivite," "le desk" (in a newsroom) with "le bureau de depeches," and "le walkman" with "le baladeur."
Television viewers here are chuckling over a slickly produced commercial that seeks to root out "Franglais," a bastard mixture of French and English. When a hip-looking young man suggests that his date join him in "un drink dans mon living, cool," his car promptly falls apart and he receives a slap in the face. He then repeats the offer in French, suggesting "un derniere verre," and the woman swoons with delight.
Mitterrand, who seems to take pride in speaking no foreign language, devoted a section of a recent book on foreign policy to inveighing against French politicians and diplomats who let down their country abroad by speaking English. He also described how, as president, he devoted considerable attention to analyzing statistics of French education around the world.
"Nobody listens to a people that loses its words," he wrote.
For many proponents of "Francophonie," a kind of French commonwealth, the purity of the language is more important than the number of people who speak it. French, according to this view, is more than just a language. It is a culture, a civilization, a way of thinking.
As Stelio Ferandjis, secretary-general of the High Council of Francophonie, noted in a recent interview, the real danger facing French is "democratization." It was better, he suggested, not to speak French at all than to speak it badly.
Successive French governments have sought to promote French as a linguistic force in world politics. It is a game in which every little victory counts. Elaborate lists are drawn up of languages used by world leaders to address the United Nations General Assembly: France is considered to have scored a point when, for example, the Albanian foreign minister makes his speech in French.
When Egyptian Foreign Minister Boutros Ghali declared that French was "the language of nonalignment," French officials were almost ecstatic. It has been possibly the most quoted remark of the past week.
One man's linguistic nonalignment can of course be another's linguistic imperialism. Algeria, where French is widely spoken, refused to attend this week's meeting on the grounds that it smacked of neo-colonialism. And the prime minister of Vanuatu (population 125,000), Walter Hadye Lini, took the opportunity to denounce French nuclear tests in the South Pacific.
To add insult to injury, the prime minister insisted on addressing his fellow French speakers in his native language, Bislama.