France has a longstanding diplomatic tradition. Sadly, the French language has lost ground to English in recent years as the official ‘lingua franca’ of diplomacy. While English is obviously more widely spoken, there is something about the phrasing of French that facilitates diplomacy: the indirect question, the polite probing rather than the direct yes or no question. But you have to be able to read between the lines – something which is challenging for a second-language learner.
I am not the most diplomatic of people, even in my native tongue. I tend to be blunt, often rushing in where angels fear to tread. Living in France has taught me to mind my p’s and q’s. Especially the q’s (which letter rhymes with ‘cul’ – a catch-all word for sex).
“Remember that time you told the doctor that our son ate shit off the floor?” husband likes to remind me. Just to even the stakes, mind you, as his English is so often the butt of family jokes. I reminded him that ‘connerie’ sounded almost the same as ‘cochonnerie’ and I was only trying to explain why our child might have picked up pinworms.
“Ha, ha…or when you first met my grandfather, and called him ‘pipi’ instead of Pépé.”
“A slip of the tongue, when I barely spoke French. And as if ‘fart-fart’ is any better!”
Our family’s sense of humour is often in the toilet bowl.
Thankfully over the years I have picked up a trick or two. And I am not the only one who makes bloopers and blunders across the cultural divide.
I remember once, shortly after we’d met, having dinner with my husband’s parents at a fancy French restaurant in Toronto. The service and food were classically French, but the wait staff were a little rough around the edges. One server, with an accent that rang of Québec, stepped up to the table with an open bottle of wine and asked my Belle-mère bluntly: “Tu veux du vin?” That lady may have choked before discreetly laughing into her napkin.
I didn’t get what was so funny.
Husband explained that not only had the server used the informal ‘tu’ form of address rather than ‘vous’, but he had effectively asked: “You want some wine?” Admittedly, “Would you care for some wine?” or even, “May I refill your glass?” would have been more appropriate.
This week’s official visit by the French presidential couple to the US bears all the signs of a well-orchestrated diplomatic coup. The bromance between Trump and Macron that began last July has been largely played up by the media. This paper’s version of events cracked me up.
I am convinced that our presidents’ mutual affection has been intentionally exaggerated by the two men. I can just imagine their conversation behind closed doors:
Trump: “You know the media say you’re gay, right?”
Macron (shrugging his shoulders): “Yes, but you know some of the things they say about you?”
Trump: “Fake news!”
Macron: “How could anyone believe such things? We both have such beautiful wives.”
Trump: “Yeah, about that…Brigitte is really in pretty good shape.”
Macron: “Thanks, Don. I’ll tell her that again. She really appreciated it last time.”
Trump: “But hey, Emmanuel, let’s give them what they came for.”
Macron: “I’m sorry, not sure I understand. Don?”
Trump: “Let’s really show the media some love. You know they eat that stuff up!”
Macron: “Ah, bonne idée, Don! It’ll take their minds off of all the little troubles we have brewing at home.”
Of course, we all know that none of this is ever decided by the leaders themselves. Such encounters are planned months in advance. Dozens of diplomats and their underlings negotiate details about who wears what, says what, eats what. The fact the both first ladies wore white at the official greeting surely involved a great deal of negotiating. Perhaps it was agreed that both should wear white as some sort of bridal symbol, or expression of hope. Certainly it would not have worked in Japan, where white is worn to funerals.
Fortunately, behind all those orchestrated outfits and overly cordial entente, French diplomacy can still pack a punch – or perhaps be the velvet hammer. Macron’s speech to congress yesterday took direct aim at America first, proving that even best friends can share some hard truths.
Perhaps Donald should read my post on how to charm the French. He could sure use some of that French diplomacy.
What do you think?