Parlez-vous English, French politicians?

Someone tell the French candidates! [LeicherOliver/Shutterstock]

The French are known for their laissez-faire attitude toward speaking English and political leaders are no exception to this cliché. The French presidential hopefuls’ familiarity with the language of Shakespeare varies from the capable to the shambolic.

Parlez-vous anglais? This simple question from an internet user embarrassed Manuel Valls and Benoît Hamon during a TV debate last month. Somewhat surprising for presidential election hopefuls, given the job they want will entail meeting foreign leaders and representing France abroad.

From Jean-Pierre Raffarin’s cryptic statements to Nicolas Sarkozy’s spluttering or François Hollande’s meandering pep talks, French politicians have rarely excelled at speaking the language of the Bard.

It is no secret: like many of his colleagues, Valls is not very good at English. Born in Barcelona, he does, however, speak Spanish well.

Alongside him during the 25 January TV debate, Hamon, the Socialist candidate, answered the question immediately and claimed to speak English fluently, even though his two quick answers, “yes” and “yes”, were not overly convincing.

It also seems to be impossible to verify his claims, as the internet does not have any record of him speaking English.

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Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the far-left candidate, is also no exception. His English is stilted and marked by a very strong accent, but that doesn’t mean he is not “very dangerous”, he insisted. The leftist also speaks Spanish.

Despite his Welsh wife, Republican François Fillon surprisingly doesn’t stand out either, though the former prime minister does not let his strong accent stand in his way. He has warned in the past that “my wife may be British, but my English remains… quite French”.

Only two candidates really speak English fluently: Yannick Jadot (Green) and Emmanuel Macron (La France en Marche). His years at the European Parliament are probably the reason why the Green MEP masters English so well.

As for Emmanuel Macron, the financial candidate had to speak the language of the City. At 39, he is also by some length the youngest contestant. And he isn’t shy about his linguistic capacities. He gave speeches in English in London and, more recently, in Berlin, where he spoke about his vision for a sovereign Europe, led by the Franco-German tandem.

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This irritated Front National leaders Marine Le Pen and Florian Philippot, who slammed this English speech as a lack of respect toward the French language.

Nothing amazing there: the extreme-right candidate does not appear to understand basic English, as illustrated by her attempt at answering a question during a visit to the United States last year.

Being able to communicate with foreign dignitaries seems to be the least of Marine Le Pen’s concerns.

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