- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 24, 2004

PARIS — General Electric employee Nadine Meslin says dealing with computer software in any language is tricky, but it’s even worse when you’re French and the jargon is in English.

So what’s the answer? Sue.

French employees of a GE branch that makes medical equipment, tired of struggling with company e-mails, manuals and meetings in English, took their fight to court on Tuesday — the latest flare-up in the French language’s struggle to maintain linguistic pre-eminence, at least at home.

“It is really for work purposes, so we can do our jobs competently,” Miss Meslin, a GE Healthcare marketing assistant who also represents the CGT trade union, said of the court action. “It is in no way a question of pride.”

Pride, nevertheless, has a lot to do with French discomfort over the creep of English, both here and elsewhere in the world. A French law aimed at fending off English usage in business and on the airwaves marked its 10th anniversary this year. French-language defenders keep an eagle eye out for transgressions such as — quelle horreur — English-language advertising.

The Defense of the French Language, a group financed partly by France’s Culture Ministry, has a Web page titled “Museum of Horrors” showing photos of English-language billboards on buses, at train stations, airports and that most iconic of French institutions, the Paris Metro.

The Culture Ministry and other groups yesterday awarded the annual English Doormat Prize for perceived offenses against the French language to government adviser Claude Thelot, according to Scots-man.com, an online news Web site. Mr. Thelot’s offense: He recommended that foreign languages be taught as early as elementary school.

Last year’s winner was an academic who promoted teaching in English. The 2002 award went to the esteemed Le Monde newspaper for running weekly excerpts in English from the New York Times.

GE Healthcare based its court complaint on the Toubon Law, introduced in 1994, which makes French mandatory in a variety of situations, ranging from advertising to workplace documents that employees need to do their jobs. The latter must be written in French but can be accompanied by translations.

The employees say English has become the main language in their branch of GE in recent years for instruction manuals, company e-mails and meetings. Older employees, hired when English was not a requirement, find it particularly hard to adapt, they say.

The case was brought by the left-wing CGT union and more moderate CFDT, and hearings opened Tuesday in a court in Versailles west of Paris, union representatives said. They expect a verdict in January.

“We are asking for the translation into French of a certain number of documents and software applications. All we want is to be able to work well, in good conditions,” said Miss Meslin, the CGT representative.

“It’s especially important for software,” she added. “Already, in French, it’s not easy, so imagine what it’s like when it’s not your native language.”

Employees contend safety is also an issue because technicians may incorrectly assemble medical machines sold by the firm if they don’t understand instruction manuals.

A 1998 study by the national statistics agency INSEE backs them up: It found that 64 percent of people ages 15 or older whose mother tongue is French say they have no working knowledge of English.

GE Healthcare said it provides employees with translations of business communications and French language tools. The firm employs more than 1,500 people from 45 countries at its site in Buc, near Versailles, and from there exports to more than 100 countries.

“GE Healthcare is committed to upholding the highest standards when it comes to respecting local laws, customs and cultures in countries where it operates,” the statement said.

Employees say the company has made an effort since the complaint was filed in June, with all e-mails from management offered in English, French and other languages since September. The firm has also promised that a software package in French would be made available, employees said.

Marceau Dechamps, vice president of the Defense of the French Language group, said the Toubon Law has proved effective in previous cases but lamented the number of French companies using English is increasing.

French employees faced with English in the workplace “often don’t say anything because they are scared of being judged poorly, of appearing backward, of compromising their promotion prospects. In meetings in English, they act as if they understood, even though they understood nothing or little,” he said.

Using French is a matter of economic efficiency, not just pride, Mr. Dechamps said. “People can only think and communicate clearly in their language. It’s utopian to think tomorrow we’ll all speak in the same language.”

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