A high-level campaign group aims to have French confirmed as the EU’s primary legal language.
In what is being criticised in certain quarters as a move to bolster the country’s decreasing influence in the EU, the CPLDE made an official visit to the European Parliament on 7 February 2007, to raise the issue of the inconsistency of EU legal texts in the Union’s 23 official languages.
CPLDE argues that French is the most authoritative language because it was both related to Latin — in which Roman law was written — and the language of the Napoleonic Code, which is still the foundation of French and much continental law, such as Belgian.
CPLDE leader Maurice Druon, well-known author and Academie Française secretary said: "All languages are equal and all the national sensitivities are duly protected. However, as regards the interpretation of texts it is better to be certain what we are writing. The Italian language is the language of song, German is good for philosophy and English for poetry. French is best at precision, it has a rigour to it. It is the safest language for legal purposes...The language of Montesquieu is unbeatable."
Former European Parliament president Nicole Fontaine said: "This language is recognised as being analytical, precise and clear, with a syntax that can adapt to all the intentions of thought, and is particularly apt for describing the definitions and expressions of law."
French MEP Paul-Marie Couteaux, of Mouvement pour la France, a party defending France's sovereignty, referred to a recent vote in the European Parliament's foreign affairs committee on Kosovo: "The text was only in English and in Czech. I have worked at the UN so I understand English, but many of my French and other colleagues did not understand a word of it. This happens much more often. People come to me and ask: can you please tell me what I am voting about?"
A parliament official countered that draft political texts for MEPs often arise from last-minute negotiations between parliament officials and MEPs' assistants having to communicate rapidly and efficiently.
"There you have an Italian, a Pole and a Lithuanian. And they speak in a language they all understand - normally English. That's perfectly normal," he said.
According to The Times, another official said: "They don't want to say it, but they are raising the alarm on English getting more and more predominant in the institutions."
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A campaign to institutionalise French as the only legal language of reference has been launched, with advocates of the Committee for the Language of European Law (Comité pour la langue du droit européen, CPLDE) arguing that French is the most precise, authoritative and rigorous of European languages.
Of the official 23 EU languages, French is one of the three Commission working tongues in which policy is drafted and the main communication tool of the Luxembourg-based European Court of Justice (ECJ), which is keen to maintain case law around the acquis communautaire.
"French is already the working language of the ECJ and European Court of First Instance," an ECJ spokesperson told EurActiv. "The judges' verdicts are delivered in French and all procedural documents are translated into French, and the language is used for most ECJ internal documents."
The CPLDE, assembled by former European Parliament president Nicole Fontaine, also includes Romanian former prime minister Adrian Nastase, Polish MEP and history professor Bronislaw Geremek and Antoinette Spaak, the daughter of Belgian former foreign minister and EU founding father Paul-Henri Spaak.
At present, standard practice dictates that any anomalies or confusions be checked against the language in which the document was written, which is usually one of the principal languages of English, French or German.
EU official documents
- Commission:The European Commission's Action Plan for Language Learning and Linguistic Diversity
- Communication on Multilingualism
- Eurobarometer:Europeans and their Languages