By Mira Kamdar
When I was an undergraduate in college (in the last century), French was considered the language of diplomacy. My United States passport, despite the recent estranged “Freedom Fries era” of Franco-American relations, still states most entries in both English and French. Alas, in this brave new age, the diplomatic power of French appears to be slipping, not the least in Europe, and especially on its now contested borders with Russia.
France currently holds the presidency of the European Union, in which role and under the enterprising leadership of President Nicolas Sarkozy (whose name it is really too tempting in the present context to spell “Czarkozy”) France undertook to broker the withdrawal of Russian forces from Georgia after their recent incursion to “liberate” South Ossetia and Abkhazia. With typical French panache, the whole thing was neatly presented, apparently understood, and expected to be rapidly executed. However, it quickly became apparent that certain critical details of the original French draft of the terms of Russian withdrawal had, literally been lost, or at least warped, in translation.
It all hinges on a prepositional dispute. Does the draft agreement call for security “for” South Ossetia, as the Georgian and English translations state, or does it call for security “in” South Ossetia as the Russian translation allows. The Russians are sticking with their translation, which they are interpreting to mean that their presence in South Ossetia is essential for security in this disputed territory. Mon dieu! Alas, it was not always thus. For more than a century, French was the language of Russia’s erstwhile aristocracy. From 1762, when Catherine the Great became Russia’s czarina, to 1917 when the aristocratic family (down to the last child it was recently proved) was taken out into the woods and shot, the Russian ruling class liked nothing so much as to converse and write in the Gallic tongue. Catherine’s enthusiasm for the French philosophes and their bewitching ideas found their apogee in her fascination with Diderot, her subvention of his megalomaniac Encyclopédie project, her charitable purchase of his library, and her tolerance for—perhaps even her masochistic pleasure in—his rapturous transports of philosophical monologue in which he would so firmly and so repeatedly grip the monarch’s tender limbs that she protested: “I cannot get out of my conversations with him without having my thighs bruised and black and blue.”
How times have changed. An oligarchy an aristocracy is not. I’d like to see Bernard Kouchner try that move on Vladmir Putin!
In the meantime, perhaps it is time to concede that the linguistic imperium of 21st-century Europe is neither French nor Russian (nor Georgian), but English. If the European Union, under any presidency, just stuck to English, clearly the new lingua franca of Europe, all parties would be able to tell their “fors” from their “ins”—and get out of where they shouldn’t be as directed.
Mira Kamdar is a Senior Fellow at the World Policy Institute and the author of Planet India: The Turbulent Rise of the Largest Democracy and the Future of Our World (Scribner, 2008).