The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Macron calls Australian leader’s wife ‘delicious’ — and demonstrates the perils of diplomacy in a foreign language

In Sydney, French President Emmanuel Macron thanked Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and his “delicious wife” Lucy for a “warm welcome." (Video: Reuters)

PARIS — One simple word, and — as usual — the Internet exploded.

On Wednesday, French President Emmanuel Macron was nearing the end of a news conference during his state visit to Australia, where he spoke next to Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.

Turning to his host, the 40-year-old French president — a former investment banker who prides himself on his ability to speak English fluently — said a few more words en anglais to thank the Turnbulls for their hospitality.

“I want to thank you for your welcome, thank you and your delicious wife for your warm welcome,” Macron said.

And there it was: “delicious,” an oratorical firebomb that had many wondering whether Macron — a social progressive and advocate of gender equality — was really making a comment about Lucy Turnbull’s appearance.

The journalists in attendance certainly thought so.

“Was it a Freudian slip by French President Emmanuel Macron? A joke linked to French gastronomy?” the Associated Press report began. “Or even, a week after his visit to Washington, a parody of President Donald Trump's infamous comments about Macron's wife?”

President Trump praised French first lady Brigitte Macron’s physique July 13, during his meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron. (Video: Emmanuel Macron/Facebook)

In July 2017, when Trump visited Paris for Bastille Day, the French national day, he famously complimented Macron’s 64-year-old wife, Brigitte, saying she was in “such great shape.”

For more than a few, Macron’s comment in Australia carried undertones of Gallic machismo, a verbal manifestation of the physical jockeying on display during his visit to the Trump White House last week.

As Australian journalist Alice Workman noted on Twitter: “You can take the man out of France but …”

But the reality is much less interesting.

Macron — who is proficient in English but occasionally struggles to find his words — was probably the victim of what the French call a “faux ami,” which refers to a word that looks and sounds similar in French and English (or another language) but differs significantly in meaning.

Yes, the term “délicieuse” can and often does mean “delicious,” and it can carry a sexual connotation. But it can also have a more mundane meaning, especially in this context. It can mean “lovely,” “delightful” or “charming” when used to describe a person. It doesn’t have to connote something physical, although it’s perhaps rare for someone as young as Macron to use the term in its somewhat antiquated sense.

In any case, the episode underscored the difficulties of conducting diplomacy in a foreign language.

Macron, a devout globalist, has made a considerable effort to communicate in English as much as possible, even as he has encouraged students across the world to learn the French language.

He made a pitch to U.S. climate scientists and researchers in English, as well as his famous “Make Our Planet Great Again” dig at Trump, after the latter withdrew from the 2015 Paris climate agreement.

And, of course, Macron fielded questions from American reporters in English during his Washington visit and delivered a long address to Congress in English, complete with allusions to a host of U.S. presidents.

But there are potential pitfalls to communicating at the highest level in a foreign language, and previous French presidents, such as Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande, typically avoided public commentaries in English, presumably for this reason.

Mistakes, after all, can be quite delicious.