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Language and politics

It is to be considered that man, truly is, a “political animal” (see Aristotle, Politics 1999: 5-6). This example can be taken in many ways but the most basic reading is that Aristotle proposes that man is by nature political because he reasons and communicates and is born to live in society with others. He is drawn to politics to satisfy his social needs. Rousseau on the other hand proposes the idea that we are good by nature but corrupted by the unnaturalness of civilisation (see Rousseau, The social contract 1968: chapter 1). He promotes the idea of the noble savage man being a good one as he is not changed by the language and actions of others, he is innocent, isolated and peaceful. When man starts to be educated, he learns language, jealousy, selfishness and conflict. Man should not put his private ambitions first, if we want to live in a world of “Liberté, égalité, fraternité”, we need to work together to try and educate people in a natural and selfless way. Language is at the very core of what allows a bright future for all, it is our most powerful weapon. But as weapons so often are, it can be used negatively and transform language into a battleground. Conflict is “an active disagreement between people with opposing opinions or principles” (see Cambridge dictionary). In politics, this can mean many things: positional differences when it comes to values in a society or someone simply standing up for what they believe in. Language is essential in all of these battles as it is at the very core of expressing one’s opinion. Therefore, in political conflicts, is language a weapon or the battleground? Firstly, I will demonstrate that language is a weapon that can be used to good or bad, then I will show how it can be a battleground in political conflicts.

In 21st century politics, the use of language is the only way to succeed. Political speakers can use it as a weapon to make people believe what they want them to. The choice of pronouns is very important for those speakers. For example, the first-person plural pronoun ‘we’ or ‘nous’ is very frequently used in politics, it is an inclusive word that aligns the speaker with the public. Barack Obama, the 44th president of the United States used the catch-phrase ‘Yes we can’ during his electoral campaign (see Mooney, Language, Society and Power 2011: 47-50). We separates us from them, the separation is very important when it comes to opposing political parties. It also makes the self smaller: by using a collective word, it takes some pressure off the political speaker who can share the blame with others if they cannot deliver on their promises. Other political speakers including Margaret Thatcher, Gordon brown and Nelson Mandela also frequently used this pronoun (see Beard, Language of politics 2000: 36-42).

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If we look at the bigger picture, pronouns are just one element of the importance of rhetoric “The art of effective or persuasive speaking or writing, especially the exploitation of figures of speech and other compositional techniques.” (see Oxford Dictionary). During the French presidential election in 2017, Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen went head to head in a battle of rhetorical and carefully considered speech. For Le Pen, what she did was all ‘In the name of the people’; Macron’s campaign slogan was “Together, the Republic!”. One hopes that rhetoric in politics is used to exclaim what politicians truly believe in, but a more pessimistic view is that they are manipulating an audience with what they want to hear to gain power. In any case, the use of language is especially important in France with the most successful orators having a history of beautifully crafted speeches. If we take a look at the 2012 French presidential election, Hollande and Sarkozy took different approaches. Sarkozy believed that France was ready for a young and modern president that talked like the rest of the country, when talking about his private life he announced “avec Carla […] c’est du serieux” (see YouTube: Nicolas Sarkozy “Avec Carla, c’est du sérieux”) this is a colloquial and informal way of giving the news. Hollande preferred a more structured use of language. During his campaign, Hollande wrote an open letter in the newspaper Libération, speaking of “la France, et donc de la République…” (see Francois Hollande, Libération 2012). It is beautifully written, concentrating on the main values of the republic and why Sarkozy has nothing to offer, it does however lack proposals and concrete plans for the future.

The register of political speech in French politics is formal and often difficult to follow, but many of the words that come up year on year during campaigns are the same. La langue du bois (wooden language) is speech that is vague, pretentious abstract and is often used in speeches when political conflict arises. Franck Lepage explained and demonstrated this idea on ARTE in a political discussion (see YouTube, La vrai Démocratie 2017, 1:27- 4:17). In this video, Lepage uses 16 random words that often come up in political discussions and makes sentences out of them that do not mean anything but with his tone and fillers, makes it look like he is having a serious political debate with valid arguments, he then explains the importance of the manipulation of language in political conflict, saying that one simply needs to know how to use it.

Language is also very powerful as it can educate people and reframe their ideas. Marine Le Pen had to completely transform her image with words when she campaigned for presidency as people associated her with her father, Jean Marie Le Pen, and the radical party he created. Marine Le Pen’s modern stance for the Front National is being the only defender of ‘La Laïcité’, some would say however that she is using it as a way to make her discriminatory ideas more acceptable, such as her intention of banning headscarves, turbans and skull caps in public: It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it.

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Language is the tool that allows a person to stand up for what they believe in, or to manipulate an audience into believing they are passionate about something. It does, however, encourage a second opinion. And after all, debate can often transform into conflict. Therefore, is language actually the battleground?

The French language lies in the balance of being old fashioned and forever changing. Rules that were set up by the Académie Francaise in 1635, when it was set up by Cardinal Richelieu, are still in action today (see Académie Française, L’histoire). Richelieu aimed to remove any “impurities” from the language. The Académie has tried to keep orthography modern, but it is still considered as too conservative by some. The continuous use of male pronouns when it comes to both genders has caused controversy, the Académie considers it the “unmarked” form, and still insist on its use in all cases. Originally the use of the masculine over the feminine was because “Le genre masculin est réputé plus noble que le féminin, à cause de la supériorité du mâle sur la femelle.” (See Beauzée 1767). This generic masculine has caused uproar and political conflict, as France has recently been fighting for a more inclusive writing. Many job titles still do not have a female equivalent form including maçon, médecin, pompier and ingénieur and there are very mixed opinions about l’écriture inclusive, an attempt at making the French language gender-neutral by using an interpunct

to separate masculine and feminine forms. For example, instead of writing ingénieur and ingénieuse, with inclusive writing the words would become ingénieur·euse·s. This allows the feminine form to be included even if the men outnumber the women in a mixed group. Traditionalists disliked the change, and official écriture inclusive got banned in 2017 by the French Prime Minister Édouard Philippe who said that “The masculine [form] is a neutral form which should be used for terms liable to apply to women.” (see Le Monde 2017) The Académie Française also exclaimed that it puts the language in “peril mortel” (See Académie Française 2017). In 2014 a French member of parliament, Julien Aubert, was fined for calling the Socialist president Sadrine Mazetie ‘Madame le président’ instead of ‘Madame la présidente’. In a video showing a clear conflict of opinion (see Youtube 2014), Aubert insists that he was following the rules of the Académie Française and that la présidente is used to describe Monsieur le president’s wife.

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Language based political conflict is not limited to gender in France. Dialects, accents and register are also hugely discussed. When Henri Grégoire insisted that one sole language should be spoken “pour extriper tous les préjugés, developer toutes les verités, tous les talents, toutes les vertus […] simplifier le mécanisme et faciliter le jeu de la machine politique, il faut identité langage” (see Rickar 1989) and French textbooks replaced the Latin ones in schools, dialects started to rapidly decline and French was promoted as a unified national language. There is a wide variety of accents all across France. For instance, down South especially in Marseille, a g sound is often added to the end of words: pain becomes paing, demain becomes demoing. Conflict was rasied between a journalist and Jean-Luc Mélenchon when he mocked her Toulouse accent in 2018 imitating her by saying “Et alors? Quesseu-que ça veut direuh?” (see YouTube 2018). He continued by asking if anyone had a question in comprehensible French, this is an act of glottophobia. Another member of parliament Bruno Studer stood up against glottophobia by using his Alsacian accent and proclaiming “Vive l’Alsace, vive la République et vive tous les accents de France, de Strasbourg… et même de Marseille !” (see LCP Assemblée nationale 2018) but was also mocked for his accent. In Alsace, the accent has many German influences, the stress is often on the first syllable, nasal vowels are hardly pronounced and there is a popular use of back [ɑ].

Another form of language conflict is the distinction between the use of tu (informal and singular) and vous (formal and/or plural). They are used as a way to define the relationship between two people. Using vous is a matter of politeness and etiquette. If a relationship is misunderstood, using the wrong form can cause conflict, even if it was a pure misunderstanding. For instance, Jacques Chirac used to famously use tu with almost everyone apart from his wife but François Mitterand tended to use vous except for with his closest friends. A socialist supporter once asked Mitterand « Alors, camarade président, on peut se tutoyer, non ? » and Mitterand responded with an icy tone “Si vous voulez.”

In conclusion, language is both a weapon and the battleground in political conflict. It allows humans to come together, express private thoughts and feelings and manipulate or rise up against each other. The more language you know, the more likely you are to be able to communicate with a wide audience. Political language use, in particular public speaking, encourages others to disagree with what has been said and can lead to the language becoming a battleground for opposing views.

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