Archive for May, 2012

Of Maïs and Men

May 24, 2012

Moulard Duck Foie Gras with Pickled Pear. From the Wikpedia Commons. Photo by Luigi Anzivino.

les souris
– mice
maïs – corn; pronounced “mah-eese”
24h sur 24 (spoken aloud as “vingt-quatre heures sur vingt-quatre” or “vingt-quatre sur vingt-quatre“) – 24/7 
(in French, they say “twenty-four hours out of twenty-four”, instead of “twenty-four/seven”)
foie gras – foie gras is a traditional French delicacy made from the liver of a duck or goose that has been specially fattened; literally translated, it means “fat liver”
gavage – force-feeding
bricolé(e) – thrown together, cobbled together, tinkered with (familiar); from the verb “bricoler”


The first time I met my friend Dave, he told me he’d been living in Paris for two years.

“Wow, your French must be really good by now,” I remarked enviously, still not feeling quite up to the task of speaking French 24h sur 24.

“Not really,” he replied. “Actually, you can get by quite well in Paris without speaking much French at all.”

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And the Winner Is…

May 8, 2012
The final round of voting in the May 6th French presidential election inspired a number of humorous ads around the city, including this clever little “jeu de mots” from Gleeden, “The #1 site for extra-marital affairs, thought up by women”. The ad says “Because it’s important not to make a mistake on May 6th, our website will be shut down temporarily”. However, the ad plays on the similarity between the verb “se tromper”, which means “to make a mistake”, and “tromper”, which means “to cheat on”.  In French, adding the word “se” in front of a verb can also mean that the action is “reflexive”, or being done to “each other”, so read differently, the message can also mean: “Because it’s important not to cheat on each other on May 6th, our site will be closed temporarily.” (It’s a lot funnier if it doesn’t require an explanation first!)

The French adore their jeux de mots and they figure quite frequently in ad campaigns, much to the delight of someone like me, who loves with the art of manipulating words and playing with language.

jeu de mots – play on words
ça y est ! – that’s it !
guignols – shenanigans
Liberté, égalité, fraternité – Liberty, equality, fraternity (or brotherhood)
avoir honte – to be ashamed
J’ai honte – I’m ashamed
Bisounours – Care Bears
Il vit au monde des Bisounours – Literally, “He lives in the land of Care Bears”, an expression that is used surprisingly often in France to indicate that somebody lives in an idealistic fantasyland
voter blanc – to indicate on your ballot that you don’t support any of the proposed candidates


Well, ça y est !  For better or for worse, France’s fate for the next five years has officially been decided. In case you haven’t been following along, last Sunday marked the second and final round of voting in the 2012 French presidential election, a bitter showdown between right-wing incumbent President Nicolas Sarkozy, and left-wing socialist contender François Hollande. It was a nail-biter down to the finish, despite various polls that declared Hollande the favourite to win, because nobody really knew how the extreme right was going to vote, or if Sarkozy’s unpopular policies would be enough to spur otherwise right-voting citizens to choose Hollande. Not one of my friends (who were almost equally divided between the two candidates) felt confident enough to make a call on who would take home the title of president. For a while there, it felt like it was anybody’s game.

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Do You Hear the People Sing?

May 5, 2012

“Foreigners, don’t leave us alone with the French!” © 2010 Anne Petitfils
A strong opposition to immigration is one of the defining tenets of the Front National, the French far right,
a position which is met with much criticism from French socialists. Marine Le Pen, the party’s leader, sent shockwaves through the nation two weeks ago when she walked away with an unprecedented 17.9% of the national vote in the first round of this year’s presidential elections, although in the end it was
Nicolas Sarkozy (27.18%) and François Hollande (28.63%) who moved on to the second round.

une fête – a festival, a celebration, a party
un jour ferié – statutory holiday, civic holiday, public holiday, bank holiday
muguet – Lily of the Valley
faire le pont – literally “to make a bridge” (bridge a gap); an idiomatic expression used to describe the common French practice of taking a vacation day in between a statutory holiday and the weekend, thereby creating an extra-long weekend
le premier mai – the first of May
le syndicat – (trade) union
un ouvrier – a worker (historically, this term was used to refer to tradespeople or factory workers)
la classe ouvrière – the working class
une manifestation – a protest, a rally
le Palais d’Élysée – Élysée Palace, the official residence of the French president
Monsieur le Président – the proper way to address the French president, in the same way that English-speakers say “Mr. President”
le vrai travail – real work
la gauche – the left
un defilé – a parade, a march
le defilé syndical – the union parade
la crise – French shorthand for the current economic crisis or the recession
“travail, famille, patrie” – work, family, fatherland
l’extrême droite – the far right
le Front National – The National Front, the far-right political party in France. Their current leader is Marine Le Pen.
l’UMP – Union for a Popular Movement, the French political right. Nicolas Sarkozy, the current French president, is their leader.
le Parti Socialist – The Socialist Party, the French political left. François Hollande, current presidential contender, is their leader.


“Do you hear the people sing, singing the song of angry men?
It is the music of a people who will not be slaves again.”
                      – “Les Misérables”, The Musical, Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg

This past Tuesday was May 1, otherwise known as La Fête du Travail (better known in English-speaking countries as “Labour Day” but literally translated as “The Festival of Work[ers]”). It’s hard to believe that it’s been two whole years since I first learned all about this nationwide jour ferié and its various traditions, like offering friends and family a small bouquet of muguet or taking an extra day off work to faire le pont. The last time I wrote about le premier mai, it seemed to me like just one of many random holidays that made the month of May in France seem like one long drawn-out vacation. What with it falling smack dab in between the two rounds of this year’s French presidential elections, however, the day took on a far more serious and political tone than many have seen in recent memory.

You see, in addition to being a great opportunity to take a long weekend trip somewhere, I’ve recently learned that, at its core, la Fête du Travail is meant to celebrate workers and workers’ rights. In Paris, the various big syndicats have a long-standing tradition of getting together to organize a big rally every year on this day, with the intention of uniting les ouvriers and reminding them of the importance of the holiday’s origins, of what their predecessors fought for, and of the fact that there are still battles that need to be fought today. It’s something of a sacred day to the unions, a day that has always traditionally belonged to la classe ouvrière. This year, as usual, the syndicats were on track to organize a giant manifestation at Denfert-Rochereau in the south of Paris, culminating in a grand march to La Bastille.

As a teenager, a high school field trip to watch the musical “Les Misérables” was my first introduction to French history, so it feels vaguely surreal to now be in Paris and witnessing strikes and marches happening along the very same city streets, carrying on the tradition of Victor Hugo’s famous unwashed poor.

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