Made for Sharing? Paris’ 2024 Olympic bid en anglais

Everything seemed pretty quiet in France over recent months regarding the position and status of the French language. It has been a good few months since the most recent hullabaloo over the insidious role that the English language had been assuming in France, courtesy of wily Anglo-Saxons or short-sighted, unpatriotic French men and women. And so the first controversy of 2017 breaks as Paris’ bid to host the 2024 Olympic Games chooses an English-language slogan ‘Made for Sharing’. paris-2024

Seemingly determined to cement its reputation in the Anglophone world as opposed to the English language in all aspects of French life, the Académie française has issued a statement noting the use of ‘Made for Sharing’ by such un-French giants as Burger King, Cadbury’s, and Quality Street chocolates, and unanimously expressing their disapproval of the language chosen. The Académie also notes that the official languages of the Olympic Games are French and English – in that order in Article 23 of the Olympic Charter.

The launch of #madeforsharing took place on 3 February, and since that time, over on the webpages of Le Monde, readers have been making full use of the comments sections of newspaper articles to rage against the choice of language for the slogan. ‘Shame’ is a popular theme of the responses, with individuals lamenting in strong terms the national disgrace and the financial cost of France’s capital city bid team using first and foremost an English-language slogan. The concession of second, French-language slogan – Venez partager – is little consolation to those who are frustrated by the use of English in something that is supposed to exemplify Paris in particular and France more generally.

@Paris2024 uses the #MadeForSharing hashtag in its regular English-language tweets

Bound up in this linguistic storm (in a tasse de thé?) is the co-option of the Eiffel Tower into the Paris bid and its use as the screen onto which the English-language slogan was projected for the formal launch of the bid. The Paris 2024 campaign crafts the ’24’ into a representation of the Eiffel Tower, and supporters of the bid – from schoolchildren through to politicians – are called upon to replicate the image using their fingers as a sign of support. We have seen elsewhere how the use of the Eiffel Tower has been emblematic in France’s understanding of itself and its on-going creation of an identity.

@Paris2024 uses the French-language slogan as its header image

So what is going on here? It almost goes without saying, but the Paris 2024 bid team are speaking to multiple audiences simultaneously. Given the diffusion of English across the globe, the choice to deploy it is clearly pragmatic. On Twitter, @Paris2024 deploys a range of English- and French-language hashtags, addressing those who might not speak English, and given that Los Angeles has been the bookmakers’ favourite amongst the bidding host cities, Paris 2024 needs to do all it can to win over members of International Olympic Committee, who will vote in Lima in the autumn to award the Games.

At the same time, Paris 2024 could have predicted (and in all likelihood did predict) the backlash that has been initiated in France. There is nowhere in the world that language is nothing more than a medium of communication. Language is never neutral, and in France, the values attributed to English, especially in domains of life which represent, exemplify, and embody the country, are invariably contested. The tension lies on the one hand in the understandable desire to speak to the widest possible audience and to demonstrate a global (as opposed to local or parochial) outlook, and, on the other hand, to convey all the intangible but fundamentally important French things that the French language clearly does for some – if not all – Frenchmen and women.


This tweet is also available in French

Much is made of the Canadian Prime Minister: he’s a repeatedly-avowed feminist; he’s appointed a gender-balanced cabinet with experts occupying each role; he’s able to explain quantam computing at the drop of a hat (although the reality of this last skill has been queried). Justin Trudeau is also a fluent French speaker who was educated in a French-medium school in Montreal. In officially bilingual Canada, this is more than merely a useful skill; almost one third of Canadians (almost 10 million people) self-identify as French speakers, of whom 7.3 million state that French is their first language.

Not for the first time, Twitter becomes a site of contestation within language politics, although – of course – Prime Minister Trudeau’s behaviour is impeccable; that is, if you think that an official Twitter account should adhere scrupulously to the law of the land. The extent to which one’s public and private lives intertwine on Twitter is something that has posed some challenges for some in the limelight. This is in addition to those who tweet messages to the entire Internet, but then rapidly seek to delete their mistake.

During the final years of the Harper administration, a language scuffle broke out between two former ministers from Canada’s Conservative government and the country’s Commissioner of Official Languages, Graham Fraser. In early 2015, Fraser found that the two ministers violated the law on official languages, with Foreign Affairs minister John Baird tweeting 181 times in English alone (out of a total of 202 tweets). The ministers and their officials rejected the Commissioner’s findings, but Trudeau’s Liberal Party responded by issuing a code of conduct, including advice on social media usage. The inevitable next question is to ask what Canada’s golden boy and his cabinet are doing in practice.

The starting point for any discussion of politician’s tweets is an acknowledgement that they might not be the authors of their own 140-character message; Donald Trump, for example, is not always the author of his own messages to the world. In some cases, an appointed official, therefore, might be writing the tweets. Nevertheless, there is some level of ownership of the tweets by the person named on the account. A cursory glance at the Twitter feed of Prime Minister Trudeau shows his even-handed approach to official bilingualism, with tweets scrupulously written in French and English – occasionally in the same tweet, but more usually in two subsequent tweets. However, Trudeau does tweet only in English in replies to a tweet in English – as evidenced by his diplomatic politeness towards the New Zealand High Commissioner to Canada. Trudeau also retweets English-language messages without providing a translation.

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Diplomatic tweets between Canada and New Zealand

Stéphane Dion, who prompted the investigation into the use of French on social media by Conservative ministers, is now in government himself, and opts for separate Twitter accounts (one in English, one in French) for his role as Minister of Foreign Affairs, as well as an account for his role as an MP, which is – naturally – in two languages. By comparison, Scott Brison – President of the Treasury Board (and whose predecessor was challenged by Dion over inconsistent language use on Twitter) – blurs the boundary in his account by tweeting in two languages for official business but tweeting in English or in French alone in a personal capacity.

So we return to a familiar question: does this really matter? Well, in terms of communication, not much is going to be lost by a politician who tweets in English but not in French. The significance is in the symbolism. As is so often the case, the message is not quite as important as the medium, and the absence of French-language tweets in a Canadian minister’s Twitter feed says more – some argue – about a politician’s attitude towards bilingualism in Canada, towards the reach of Federal law, towards Francophone citizens. Comments posted news stories about this on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation‘s website highlight how for some, this is a non-issue, a waste of time and of money. For others, this is very important indeed, and is about respect for a numerical minority whose language rights should be respected. As is often the case, social media is the forum in which lively language debates play out.