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.