Politics Spoken in France

by Translation Guy on January 18, 2013

The language of politics is not always sound and fury. Both those on the short end and the long end of the power stick sometimes have to choose their words carefully. These political code words can be a shorthand or a smokescreen for political intentions.

Locals with the stomach for it have the context for the bombast, and they effortlessly clue in on the stock of phrases persuaders use to trigger a call to action.

But just as often, those carefully cultivated messages are used for just the opposite reason — to avoid or obscure a view that might stir up a hornet’s nest among supporters or political enemies.

This week: two case studies from two quite different political cultures, France and China.

The Economist has published an amusing glossary of “new French doublespeak,” a great chance for the conservative British magazine to tweak some of the word choices of François Hollande’s Socialist government.

“Both the left and the right in France have a tradition of disguising policy with woolly or euphemistic turns of phrase,” states the magazine.  The glossary includes:

Redressement des comptes publics (putting right the public finances): budget cuts and tax increases, never combined with austérité or rigueur (see banned words). Not to be confused with…

Redressement du pays dans la justice (putting right the country with justice): soaking the rich with taxes. Not to be confused with…

Redressement productif (productive renewal): name of ministry responsible for stopping industrial closures, or failure thereof (see Florange, Peugeot).

Plan social (redundancy plan resulting from aforementioned factory closures): job losses, not to be confused with organisation of social life, bars, clubs etc.

Modernisation de l’action publique (modernisation of public action): eliminating public-sector inefficiencies, elsewhere known as budget cuts.

You have to admit that these French turns of phrase have a certain je ne sais quoi when compared to the terms of debate currently employed here in the Arsenal of Democracy. The current crop of political bon mots — “Fiscal Cliff,” “Gun Control,” or “Death Star Petition” –certainly lacks the subtlety of French political expression.

Is there any American political doublespeak that can match the accomplishments of the French?

Maybe. Readers are encouraged to share politicisms of  their favorite polity in comments below.

Next time we’ll look at Chinese political language. In that censorious society, euphemism is often the only option for powerless citizens who must watch their language before their murderous Commie masters. Next time: how last week’s press protest in China provided the Miracle-grow for a flowering of Chinese political euphemism.


  1. Steve Remish says:

    Just spend an hour in any major corporate headquarters, these guys don’t even speak English as I recognize it anymore, it’s all smooth double talk nonsense

  2. The military is full of them: hard target, soft target, weapons system, degraded, neutralized, attrited, suppressed, sanitized, impacted, force packages, etc.

    • Ken says:

      Advance to the rear? Thanks for reading, Benedikt

  3. Lori says:

    I did read that Economist piece, it was hilarious, although calling the Economist a conservative magazine is inaccurate. They have always occupied the extreme centre, they are the ultimate fence sitters when taking their views as a whole.

    • Ken says:

      I stand corrected. I am not a regular reader, but the Johnson Blog is a favorite of mine.

  4. During my time in the military I ran into some great ones, but my favorite was for civilian workers, “non-duty, non-pay status” or fired

  5. Dick says:

    Affirmative Action / Racial Discrimination. Both mean “preferential treatment for a particular race”. However, the first is mandated by law and the second in illegal.

  6. Sande says:

    Redefining success has always been a favorite, just move the goalposts so failure is suddenly winning

    • Ken says:

      So long as its a level playing field.

  7. Enhanced interrogation always struck as particularly elegant in comparison to its actuality

  8. Ann says:

    “Aspirational goal” is both a tautology and a paradox. Aspirations and goals are the same thing; and yet when the terms are combined, the effect is to undermine them both, producing a phrase that means, in effect, a goal to which one does not aspire all that much.

    • Ken says:

      “I’ll try to try.” -Bart Simpson.

  9. Trickle down economics was always a great euphemism to me

  10. Pamela says:

    Yes, there is a certain elegance to the French political bullshit that gets lost in English speaking circles.

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