Donnez moi un break

Franglais can be a charming way to bridge the gap between the ever-bickering neighbours, the UK and France, but only when the franglaphone bears both sides of the channel in mind.
French caricature of a portly Englishman, 1812.
French caricature of a portly Englishman, 1812. Credit: Heritage Art/Heritage Images via Getty Images
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‘Donnez moi un break’ said Boris Johnson last month after France vented her fury that the AUKUS pact had been struck behind French backs despite an agreement signed between France and Australia in 2016. As a form of encouragement to his ‘dearest friends’, the British Prime Minister urged them to ‘Prenez un grip’. Few in France would have understood what he really meant, as both original expressions (‘Give me a break’ and ‘get a grip’) don’t exist in the same form in French. His attempt at Franglais thus fell flat, at least for those for whom he claims to have an ‘ineradicable love.’

Boris Johnson was playing to his English-speaking gallery who found his remarks both funny and insolent, which was precisely the point. The French chose to shrug it off as another display of English eccentricity. Indeed, one of France’s favourite Englishmen, the broadcaster Alex Taylor, an ardent Europhile and polyglot, immediately started an educational and very useful ‘expression du jour’ with translations in three languages on his Twitter feed. Perhaps to help avoid future Franglais faux-pas à la Johnson. 

However, it did reopen what can only be described as a Pandora’s box of Franglais-related ephemera and raised its quirky status in French culture.

Franglais has a long and distinguished history, finding its roots in eighteenth-century Anglomania, the kind for instance promoted by an enamoured Voltaire for anything British generally, and parliamentary politics in particular. Anglomania is defined by the Larousse dictionary as ‘a fashion that is about imitating and admiring excessively anything that belongs to or reminds of British culture.’ The Goncourt brothers put it differently in their Journals, in 1867: ‘England, because its character is so unpleasant and opposed to ours, has always fascinated us. Last century gave us Anglomania, its fashion, horse races, coachman’s clothes and the Rosbif genre.’

With time, and since the First World War, the habit of peppering our daily French conversations with English words has had more to do with American influence and power than Anglomania, although British pop music might have played a small part, from the sixties onwards. One sorry aspect of contemporary Franglais is that it stems more from linguistic laziness and ignorance than an actual love of Shakespeare’s or Hilary Mantel’s lingua. Today, the kind of Franglais you hear in the streets of Paris shows, more often than not, the inverted snobbery of conformist bourgeois who think it’s cool to say ‘leggings’ rather than caleçon, ‘crowdfunding’ rather than souscription publique, ‘low cost’ rather than bas coût, etc. The most comical and revealing side of it, however, is adding English sounding suffixes to French words, creating English words that do not exist outside of Globlish, such as ‘fooding’. The result is a fantasy English that exists nowhere else. ‘Why indeed speak French well when you can speak English badly?’ is how a well-known literary critic once put it.

There are joyful and particularly creative examples of Franglais. A 1962 song penned by the star anarchist chanteur and composer Léo Ferré combines Franglais, sexual innuendo, and poetry.

C’est une barmaid
Qu’est ma darling
Mais in the bed
C’est mon travelling
Mon best-seller
Et mon planning
C’est mon starter
After shaving
Je suis son parking
Son one man show
Son fuel son king
Son slip au chaud
Rien qu’un petit flash
Au five o’clock
Je paie toujours cash
Dans le bondieu scop

Et j’cause Français
C’est un plaisir

So goes the first verse. The song is ironically called La langue françaiseWhich strangely reminds me of the Franglais in Alan Bennett’s play The History Boys, especially the brothel scene, almost entirely acted in French but in a way that is both comical and comprehensible to an English audience. A real lesson in history, and a thing of endearment. Unlike Boris Johnson’s supercilious sally – or sortie as we say in French.

Agnès Poirier

Agnès Poirier is a journalist, writer and broadcaster based in Paris and London. She is the UK editor for the French weekly magazine L’Express and the author of, among others, 'Left Bank: Arts, Passion and the Rebirth of Paris (1940-1950)' and 'Notre-Dame: The Soul of France'.

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