Vive le footé!

Football

If you are in the UK, there are two things that you are undoubtedly aware of at the moment: the forthcoming EU referendum and the 2016 UEFA European Championship, referred to in popular shorthand as the Euros 2016. Both events are underpinned by the relationship between the UK and its European neighbours, and both have prompted the rehearsal of well-worn stereotypes. From the perspective of this blog, the football tournament is closer to my own research interests, but explicitly not because of my (lack of) interest in the game, but because the championship takes place in France. This has provided advertisers, broadcasters, and journalists with ample scope to dust down their French-language clichés and stereotypes, and it is what these ideologies say about us, the British, that interests me most.

One particular ‘campaign’ leaps to mind, broadcast by the BBC, in the run up to the tournament. Witty, glossy, and playing directly into widely-held British tropes and imagery about France, the French, and the French language, the BBC clip has already been deemed the best ad of the week by media magazine Campaign. The BBC’s clip was devised by advertising agency Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe/Y&R, entitled ‘Liberté, Egalité, Footé’. We’ll come to the title in a minute, but the 90-second video is set, seemingly, in Ancien Régime France, under some kind of football monarchy, with the BBC’s pundits dressed like members of the Bourbon court. The exception is French former footballer Thierry Henry, whose tricolour sash makes him look more like a post-Revolution functionary than a loyal courtier. But I am no expert in dress, and will leave commentaries on the attire to those more qualified than me.

Football 2
A screen shot of the Henri Delaunay trophy revered as it passes by in procession

I’d like to focus on the language and the other semiotic resources used by the ad agency to convey French-ness and football. The theme of the clip is the importance of the football championship whose significance is such that it should be venerated – as represented by the ranks of courtiers bowing deeply as the Henri Delaunay trophy, or more accurately a representation of it, is born majestically through the rooms of this mythical palace. Other icons of football include the klaxon and football rattle – both ornamentalized for the purposes of this clip – and the golden football atop the sceptre carried by Gary Lineker. So far, so straightforward: the beautiful game is so important that it is worthy of reverence. If we turn our attention to language, there is no speech in the clip, and the only text (in its traditional sense) visible comes at the end of the video, where the motto of the French republic appears; liberté is followed by égalité but the normal trio of concepts is disrupted with the final term: footé. We won’t dwell here on the clash between royal and republican France, with the setting and dress connoting the former and the motto the latter.

Footé is fun and memorable because it fits in with what some (but not necessarily all) know about the republican architecture of the French State. It sounds like footy in English, and alliterates with fraternité from the original French motto. Here we tap into what my colleagues Philip Seargeant and Barbara Mayor from the Open University refer to as ‘writing with a foreign accent’. Nobody thinks that footé  is French – or if they do, they need to revisit their French GCSE notes. The idea is that footé conveys a sense of French-ness, through its acute accent on the final -e, and makes the viewer – in this case – think of France. This writing with a foreign accent is something we are all used to: think of Häagen-Dazs ice cream that was an American company but whose brand name was conceived to convey the idea of Danish-ness. Places such as restaurants often draw on collective knowledge of languages and fonts to reinforce through imagery the sense and authenticity of the food they serve. We all know of a Greek restaurant that uses Greek-style lettering whilst writing in English, or an Indian restaurant that deploys a style of Brahmic scripts to underscore how Indian the food really is.

Back at the BBC, married to the images of the Court of Gary Lineker, with Gabby Logan as a twenty-first century Madame de Pompadour – Louis XV’s favourite mistress – the term footé, alongside the repeated images of tricolours, palaces akin to popular imaginings of Versailles, and powdered wigs, play with our understanding of French-ness. We remember this campaign in part because of Rio Ferdinand wearing a cream frock coat, and in part because it makes us think of football – or footé – in France, or in what our collective imagination depicts as a mash-up between football, republicanism, and France’s former royal court.

Singing in English? Nul points

Vallini

“Is this old news?” was the question I asked myself when the BBC first reported that France’s minister for Development and the French-speaking organisation, la Francophonie, had tweeted his disapproval about France’s official song for the Euros 2016 football competition and the country’s Eurovision entry. The calibre of the songs was not the source of M. Andre Vallini’s disquiet, but rather the fact that they are, in his words, in English. Haven’t we been here before? Or is just the impression we in the Anglo-Saxon world get, whereby it seems that the French go through a relatively frequent crise about the use of English in places where clearly some think that French should be used?

In the name of this blog, I endured both the Eurovision entry and the official Euro 2016 anthem for France, and what is striking in the first instance is the fact that there’s probably as many lines in French as there are in English in the Eurovision entry by Amir. This oversight by M. le Ministre has been seized on by those who have seen his tweet; his argument is clearly undermined once it transpires that he patently hasn’t heard the song himself, and not even wondered whether – given that its title is in French – it might include some lyrics in French. In response to this criticism, Vallini has issued a statement, qualifying the proportion of the Eurovision entry that is in English. Amir himself is presented by Eurovision as ‘multicultural’, which we might redefine as transnational – his father is Tunisian, his mother Moroccan-Spanish, and he’s lived in Israel, having been born in France. Apparently, he has a ‘warm and generous Mediterranean voice’, whatever that means.

Amir
A screen shot from Amir’s French- and English-language video clip

 

The debate centres on why someone, in this case the Minister for Development and Francophonie, thinks that these songs should be in French. Why is the fact that they are (in part) in English ‘alarming and unaccceptable’, as per M. Vallini’s tweet? Perhaps some of the explanation lies in the fact that both these songs are part of a competition between nation States, where France is up against its anglophone neighbours such as the UK and Ireland, and its anglophile allies in Scandinavia and northern Europe. Under these circumstances, we see how the connection between the French language and France becomes particularly significant. Since the Revolution, the French language has been a defining characteristic of being French; before royal heads rolled, the French language was ‘owned’ by the King and the aristocracy, and they had no desire to see the wider population speak French. Republican values in particular prize the French language as a marker of the French people and part of the democracy that is France.

M. Vallini’s subsequent statement clarifies some of the ideologies at play in this debate, where he writes about how these two competitions should be used to showcase France and, by extension, the French language. In this narrative, French and France are effectively one and the same. Another theme of M. Vallini’s communiqué is the popular nature of the two events, tapping back into the rhetoric of the French language as owned by the people. The Minister’s concern, where he fears the French language is waving the white flag of surrender in the face of its (English-language?) opposition, is that these two events see a fracture between the people and French.

One of the exciting dimensions of Twitter is that it allows ‘the people’ to engage directly with this stance, and to engage with the language ideology under discussion. One of the first responses to M. Vallini’s original tweet suggested that Eurovision viewers could not be expected to vote for a song whose lyrics they do not understand, and so the part-French, part-English entry is a ‘wise’ choice. Here, @safai8787 argues that comprehension is the governing principle in enjoying and/or appreciating music, a position adopted by others, such as @SayYouOuOu. Others argue that the minister surely has other fish to fry (or, to use the French idiom, other cats to whip), such as unemployment.

By the end of the day after the infamous tweet, nothing seemed to be quite as it was originally presented: Amir sings only the chorus in English, and the ‘official’ Euro 2016 anthem is actually one of the French football team’s main sponsor’s anthem, so not technically the song that carries the weight and significance of the team representing France. Nevertheless, let’s not allow the accuracy of the facts get in the way of a sociolinguistic debate: France’s élite still argue publicly that France – from its Eurovision entry to its football anthem – should be presented to a wider world in French, rather than in English.