Monday, March 23, 2009

Speaking Frankly

I like to listen to the radio station France Inter as I attempt to wake up in the morning, and this morning there were two items that actually got me to stop and think (no small feat for me before 10am). The first was a short segment on a new tendency amongst politicians to “parler cash.” I had to ask my husband (who is French), what that could possibly mean. Were they speaking about money? No, apparently this is the new slang for straight talk, plain speaking. This tendency will be welcomed with open arms by most ex-pat North Americans, who for years have had to cope with the French way of verbally attacking even the simplest of matters, that is, sideways. Though I love the French language and am in a state of continual awe at how French people use it with such elegance and style, their abhorrence of just saying what’s on their mind can really complicate your life. Direct speaking is generally frowned upon here, and those who choose that path are considered borderline barbarians. For example, in the early years of my marriage, when I would foolishly ask for the butter dish by saying: “pass me the butter dish,” my usually kind and mellow husband would go ballistic because I had not used the conditional tense.

So I was fascinated to hear that politicians like president Nicolas Sarkozy and Ségolène Royal would go so far as to “parler cash.” As the commentator pointed out, French politicians traditionally speak in a language so florid that even French people have a hard time figuring out what they are talking about, using unbearable tenses like the imperfect of the subjunctive. But he then went on to make the case that in fact, “parler cash” wasn’t as great as all that. That there was something vaguely sinister about it, and that while these politicians were daring to tell reporters how they felt about an issue, they were using this new way of talking to avoid saying what they might actually do about an issue. As if this new trend, which admittedly has an American tang, goes so against the cultural grain that it could only be a political subterfuge meant to confuse your average citoyen.

The other item was a hilarious riff by France Inter’s resident humorist Stéphane Guillon (photo above). At least, I thought it was pretty funny, I can’t imagine what a devout Catholic would think of it. Guillon, to put it mildly, took the Pope to task. In case you are not aware, Pope Benedict has been on a tear lately, not only re-instating four excommunicated bishops (including one that denies that the Holocaust happened), not only excommunicating a mother who obtained an abortion for her 9-year-old daughter who had been raped, but also declaring during his visit to Africa, a continent ravaged by AIDS, that condoms were not beneficial and even made the problem worse. I can’t recall all the highlights of Guillon’s rant, but neither he nor the radio station censored his detailed descriptions of condom use, nor his suggestion that the real problem was that the Pope, being chaste, was in need of sex ed, specifically on how a condom works, and even more specifically that the use of a certain type of vibrating ring is guaranteed to make lovers believe in the existence of God. Keep in mind that France Inter is basically government owned. Whatever prudishness French people may have about the use of the conditional, they are clearly way ahead of us when it comes to being direct and frank about sexual matters. Can anyone even begin to imagine NPR serving up a similar dish?