Boucs emissaires

William Holman Hunt: The Scapegoat, 1854.

Although we now live in Switzerland we remain faithful to our former French habits when it comes to watching the news. Thanks to the wonders of modern technology, and a monthly subscription to Swisscom, we enjoy access to all the French television channels as well as several from the UK. There are also a few Swiss choices, of course, but except for the odd news program I can’t be bothered. And watching TV in German, even with subtitles, is still a lot of work.

It seems I cling to the familiar at times when things feel new and uncertain. Ever since we moved and I discovered the UK Drama channel, I’ve also been watching old episodes of EastEnders from 1995. It’s funny how a TV soap can take you back. I remember first watching some of those episodes when we lived in Lyon and my daughter was just a baby. Seeing the clothes and hairstyles from another era in your life is oddly reassuring. (And quite hilarious. Phil Mitchell with hair! Ian Beale getting a fax machine!)

Back then I was working as a freelance translator. A fax machine was my life line for receiving work and sending in translated texts to clients. The internet was still new and there wasn’t much available online; I spent a fortune on dictionaries to navigate my way through French texts that were often highly technical. To my dismay, regular dictionaries did not include technical terms and we had no library nearby so I had to invest in specialized tomes to be able to translate texts about electrical gear and high technology.

Back in those days in France my work was just trickling in. So I took on just about anything despite the fact that my specialty was copywriting. I remember on a few occasions reluctantly accepting some interpreting jobs, even though I was only borderline fluent enough to translate live speech. One of my clients, who I think was desperate as her regulars were all off on holiday, explained that it wasn’t the kind of simultaneous translation you see on TV but rather ‘interpretariat d’accompagnement’; meaning that you simply had to translate for someone attending a meeting, so that they understood more or less what was happening. Still, you had to be pretty good and pay attention. No smart phones, no Google translate. And all those dictionaries were too heavy to lug around, although I did bring a few in the trunk of my car for emergencies.

Those jobs were more of an education that any French class could ever be. I remember on one occasion being entirely stumped in a meeting when a term I’d never heard kept popping up: bouc emissaire.

“On va pas chercher des boucs emissaires,” one earnest-looking fellow kept repeating. My client, a nice Israeli man who actually understood quite a bit of French, looked at me expectantly.

I swallowed, then ventured: “We’re not looking for any messenger bucks?”

From a few seats down the table came the sound of choked laughter. Then the heavily-accented voice of a woman, who until then had kept a very low profile, suggested: “I think in English it is called ‘escape goat’?”

Scape goats! Bien sûr. I nodded vigorously, red-faced. Thinking: never again. Translating the written word with the help of dictionaries is one thing. Interpreting is something else entirely. Flying without a net as it were. I vowed from then on to leave it to the professionals.

I was reminded of this incident when watching the news on TV last night. The special guest on France 2 was Gérald Darmanin, the French Interior minister who is in charge of the police. He was being called to account for yet another incident of police violence. A French version of George Floyd (fortunately he survived) in which in a music producer named Michel was severely beaten in his own Paris studio by several cops who didn’t realize they were being filmed by security cameras. The incident further fuels controversy around a new law being introduced in France that makes it a crime to share images of the police for malicious purposes (although in this case no one claims it was malicious).

“Trouver des boucs emissaires, c’est pas ma façon de faire,” Darmanin said in a live interview during which it was suggested that the head of the Paris police should be relieved of his functions. Looking for scapegoats, it seems, is not his style.

I sighed. How familiar it all felt. Yet another French controversy, a new reason for people to take to the streets. Not much ado about nothing but, seen from this side of the border, and with that old chestnut popping up again, it almost felt like home.

How about you? Do you watch TV news?


  1. francetaste · November 27, 2020

    When I was working in an office, I used to joke that we should just schedule “scapegoat” so that everybody could get a turn, since whoever was getting blame rarely was the real cause of any problem.
    I don’t know many police officers personally, but of those I do know, I wouldn’t want to be a person of color encountering them. Or their wives. Something about the work seems to attract people who see force as a way of commanding respect and who consider themselves above the law.

    • MELewis · November 27, 2020

      Yes, in France it seems that ‘Il faut toujours trouver un coupable,’ 😂 Agree about the police in general, even though I know many who are kind, honest people. Even with my white privilege, I often feel bullied so I can’t begin to imagine how it feels for people of colour.

  2. margaret21 · November 27, 2020

    Nope. I’ve completely given up on TV news. But I DO read the papers (certain newspapers, that ii). But that leaves me in control of what to read and when to stop. As to ‘boucs emissaires’ – that’s a new one on me. Love it.

    • phildange · November 27, 2020

      It comes from the Torah in the Levitic, when God recommends Israel to send a male goat (“un bouc” since a female is une “chèvre”) loaded with all the People’s sins into the desert.

    • MELewis · November 27, 2020

      Good for you, Margaret! Obviously the superior way to stay informed. I wish I could bring myself to read the paper but I can’t so the TV news is better than nothing. However my French husband makes up for it by reading several so I stay informed by osmosis.

      • margaret21 · November 27, 2020

        ‘Osmosis’ sounds the way forward to me. Go for it.

  3. phildange · November 27, 2020

    Pardon me but this new law is a huge next step towards dictatorship . The Power plans to make life really harsher for the poor and medium, so many protests are expected in the following times . In the last years we saw the police becoming incredibly violent and this could be shown and denounced by the videos made by witnesses .
    This law foresees ever more violences from the Police and takes radical precautions to hide it . In the same law they criminalize the fact for students to occupy or block universities, their perennial mean of contesting . If they still do this they will be arrested and sent in cell , then to a trial .
    A giant step of cynism, this law is something unbelievable, it could never have been attempted since the good old Nazi occupation . A year ago I already told friends with a semi-smile ” every month a next step to totalitarism, well done Manu, progressively, with “pretexts” , very smart . In comparison Adolf was a big bully” . Now I would not smile at all .

    • MELewis · November 27, 2020

      Right you are, Phil. And I hope you will forgive my poetic license in this post in finding it amusing. The law is outrageous to me and should be changed to protect not just freedom of the press but free speech in general. Plus it’s been proven that the only thing that stops police brutality is knowing they’re being filmed (if even that does stop them).

  4. Colin Bisset · November 27, 2020

    What with Covid and then that election, I was plugged into the news all day long, streaming it on my phone whenever I went out of the house and checking Twitter constantly. But now, with the promise of various vaccines and Biden, I’ve unplugged myself and I’m feeling much better for it. It reminded me of reading some New Age thing that if you become addicted to the television you should brush your entire body with a bristle brush to eliminate the attached aura. Never tried that but it kept popping into my head whenever I woke up and went straight to the news…

    • MELewis · December 1, 2020

      Interesting idea, I may just give it a try. I’m less of a news junkie but for the amount of time I do fall down that rabbit hole it is certainly ‘anxiogène’ as the French say. Definitely life is better for not waiting on tenterhooks for each breaking update. You guys are hitting summer so I imagine that the outdoors are also a draw. Take a deep breath of that ocean air for us as we hunker down to winter!

  5. Dale · November 28, 2020

    I must confess, as bilingual as I am, that I was unfamiliar with bouc émissaire! Some expressions just don’t cross our paths, it seems.
    As for watching the news – as little as possible. There is nothing good being shared; just the awful in a continuous loop.

    • MELewis · December 1, 2020

      Interesting, Dale, but I wonder if maybe it’s not used quite as much in Québec. The need to find someone to blame is very French! But you’re right: an endless loop of awful is to be avoided!

      • Dale · December 1, 2020

        It might just be me who never encountered the term. Les québécois are also quite good at pointing fingers ..

      • MELewis · December 3, 2020

        Now why doesn’t that surprise me? 😂

  6. acflory · November 29, 2020

    Yes, I still watch the nightly news on the Australian ABC, despite the fact that it’s no longer the unbiased, evenly balanced source it once was. Or perhaps there’s always been bias of some sort, and I simply didn’t know?

    To be quite honest, since I’ve become addicted to #auspol on Twitter, I’ve realised that most of the news that appears on main stream media is heavily curated. On the commercial channels this curation is skewed towards the sensational – anything to get viewers to stay tuned while the god-awful-interminable-stupid commercials interrupt constantly. On the ABC, the pressure seems to come from the government of the day. This is despite the fact that the ABC is supposed to be an independent organisation.

    Of course you have to wonder how independent the ABC /can/ be when unhappy govts cut its funding time and again, or when the same governments appoint Chairmen to the board who are sympathetic to said govt’s policies. Both have happened in the last few years. 😦 I guess I’ve only just learned how naive I was.

    I have to take my hat off to you though. The fact that you even attempted real time translation is super gutsy. I tried it in a very amateur way back in my twenties. I was travelling in Europe and met up with some people in Hungary who only spoke English or French as a common language. As I was the only one who spoke Hungarian, I found myself ‘translating’ backwards and forwards. Exhausting, and unbelievably hard when you don’t know all the ‘argot’ in either French /or/ Hungarian. 😦

    • MELewis · December 1, 2020

      Those interpreting jobs were indeed hard but I think I was less gutsy than naively trying to seize any opportunity to get work. I remember coming home from days like that and hugging my kids with renewed love: it sure helped to put things in perspective. Glad you can relate to how hard it is through your own Hungarian experience. I think you have to have been there, done that to get it!

      Interesting about your TV news experience down under. We get the sensationalism here too in terms of the news constantly hitting on the same themes, but far fewer commercials than we had in Canada. Which is a good thing as I am completely intolerant of them! In our house, not bleeping the sound during commercials is a crime punishable by me losing it fast.

      Also interesting that you find new perspectives following hashtags on Twitter. I must admit it is a platform on which i generally feel quite lost. And so much anger, even worse than ‘friends’ rants on Facebook!

      • acflory · December 1, 2020

        I admit I viewed professional interpreters with far greater respect after my thankfully short attempt. I think it must go beyond simply being fluent in a language. It’s almost as if they second guess the speaker. Or, no, it’s as if they become a sort of machine. Meh.

        -giggles- we rarely watch commercial tv but when we do, we should probably be censored during commercials. It’s the only way to make them tolerable. 🙂

        Twitter has its faults, lots of them, but it’s also like an indie news service. The people I like don’t just make statements, they back them up with links to the source. That is literally how I grew to appreciate The Guardian and a number of other non-brand journalists. So sources are very much by word of mouth. So long as you check the source, Twitter can provide a much less biased picture of the world than you get on main stream media.

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