In his traditionally humorous style, Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker told an audience in Brussels on Thursday (11 February) about his competitive edge over French and German leaders.
Juncker attended the inauguration of the “Club of the French-Speaking Press”, (Club de la Presse Francophone), in the crowded premises of the Brussels Press Club, in the presence of many journalists and diplomats.
“I was, and I am always very surprised to see the heads of state and government of France and Germany to speak to each other in approximate English. We have never had the chance to have a German-speaking French President or a French-speaking German chancellor. This always gave the Luxembourgish prime minister an added value,” he said, speaking in French.
Since becoming Prime Minister of Luxembourg for the first time in 1995, the Presidents of France have been François Mitterrand, Jacques Chirac, Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande. The successive German Chancellors were Helmut Kohl, Gerhard Schröder and Angela Merkel.
Juncker said that dialogues between the leaders of France and Germany was often “incomprehensible” and that he had tried to put “some order” in the communication between the leaders of the two countries, often described as “the engine of Europe”.
All the Luxembourgish, he said, were speaking French. When his fellow countrymean realised nobody wanted to speak their language, they decided to learn the other countries’ languages, Juncker added, prompting repeated laughs from the audience. The Luxembourgish language of Letzeburgesch is a West Germanic language, often considered as a dialect, with a written form of German. It is not an official language of the EU, mainly because Luxembourg didn’t make the request.
Juncker also said that most French-speaking heads of state and grovernments, whose countries are members of the International Organisation of Francophonie, have always spoken English, when they visited him in Luxembourg.
The European members of the organisation are Albania, Andorra, Armenia, Belgium, Bulgaria, Cyprus, France, Greece, Luxembourg, Macedonia, Moldova, Monaco, Romania and Switzerland. It can be said that the vast majority of the East European leaders from francophone countries use English in their communications with foreign leaders.
Juncker corrected Michaëlle Jean, Secretary General of the Organisation internationale de la Francophonie, who said that French was disappearing from EU pressrooms.
“It’s not true,” he said, reminding his audience that Commission spokespersons are instructed to speak equally English and French, and to answer in the language in which the question is asked. However, the journalists most often ask their questions in English, he added.
Juncker stated that in all his speeches, he expressed himself in the EU’s three working languages, English, French and German, adding that he spoke more at length in French, because his French was better than his English.
The Commission President said that Germans use to say that his German was “almost perfect”. “My French is more than perfect (plus que parfait),” he said, a pun based on the name of a verb tense so complicated that few French use it.
“Language is an instrument of the heart which helps you understand the landscape, to have an idea about the people who live on a territory, because language characterises and differentiates the territories, and it opens the road to the culture of the country, if you speak the language. Because language allows you to understand everything, if you want to understand,” Juncker said.
He also made jokes about the recent reform of the French grammar which affects 2,600 words, saying he was trying to learn, but wasn’t sure if the others from the francophonie were following.
“We will see that at the autopsy,” he said.
Juncker applauded the initiative to set up the Club de la Presse Francophone. He said he had not been journalist in his career, but that he had wanted to be one.