Are the French right to ban the word "hashtag"?

Cultural anxiety on twitter.

Last Wednesday, the French government’s snappily-named General Commission for Terminology and Neology issued a recommendation that French social media users should shun the term “hashtag” in favour of French alternative mot-dièse, or "hash word".

The recommendations of the Commission, which was created in 1996 in order to combat the influx of Anglo-American words, have been met with widespread criticism. The proposed term mot-dièse has been accused of not being Twitter friendly (it is longer than "hashtag" and contains an accent), and of being inaccurate– dièse actually denotes a musical sharp symbol (♯), rather than a hash sign. The outlawing of "hashtag" is also seen by many social media users as reactionary and futile; it has variously been described as a “Frankenstein word”, “ridiculous” and, fittingly (or ironically), it has been branded  an #epicfail on Twitter.

On first glance, the recommendation may seem ill-judged or even risible, but it begins to look a little more raisonnable when put in the context of a more general cultural anxiety. In the last fifty years, English words have become increasingly ubiquitous in French day-to-day life. This is largely thanks to the import of a great deal of American – and some British – television programmes and films, which are watched in VO (version originale) with subtitles. American music is also very popular in France; nothing is guaranteed to fill a French dance floor like the opening bars of the Black Eyed Peas hit I Gotta Feeling, though clubbers will sing along to only a few selected lyrics: “up!….off!… masel tov!… good, good night!”.

French governments of all political colours have fought to protect their culture from being dominated by a tradition alien to their own. Whilst Chirac’s conservative government introduced the terminology Commission in 1996, it was France’s much-revered socialist president, François Mitterrand, who created the “cultural exception”, which necessitated ‘cultural goods’ to be treated differently to other commercial products, encouraging the autonomous production of French art.  Mitterrand also introduced the controversial radio quota that necessitates that at least 40 per cent of music on France’s airwaves is in French. For the British, who tend to find patriotism a little embarrassing (though the Olympic Games proved an exception), this cultural approach may seem a little precious. But it is worth remembering that we too grumble about the "Americanisation" of the English tongue, despite the fact that we, at least, share the same language as our U.S. counterparts.

The proliferation of Anglicisms is particularly present in the world of beez-ness where terms like “debrief”, “meeting”, and “manager” are d’un common. In recent years, Paris metro carriages have been splattered with adverts for courses to learn "Wall Street English", depicted on the posters is a tanned man in a business suit, his mouth opened wide to reveal a tongue decorated with the stars and stripes. Little wonder, then, that many French people are often anxious about, what writer and French culture expert Lucy Wadham terms, the “relentless advance of Anglo-American capitalism.”

The dominance of English-based terms is nowhere more prevalent than in the ever-developing world of technology. The same Commission that coined mot-dièse has fought since the birth of the internet to preserve French terminology; along the way it has tried to promote French alternatives for ‘the web’ (la toile) and ‘email’ (courrier-électronique). But is it realistic, in a domain where new products, systems and concepts are being developed and created all the time – and therefore where words signify completely new phenomena – to seek translations for digital terminology? Speaking to The New Statesman, David Carzon, the web editor of French cultural magazine Télérama suggested that there is a distinction to be made between official and colloquial language. “[The state] cannot control colloquial language; "courrier éléctronique" is widely used in official communication , whilst "email" remains the preferred term in everyday language.”

He adds that “ultimately, it is [Twitter] users that will decide if mot-dièse will replace hashtag.” According to a survey this week, only thirty percent of a cross-section of 300  said they intended to start using the term, whilst 67 per cent said they would stick with "hashtag".

Carzon, however, does not view the adoption of English words as necessarily worrying for French culture. “French culture doesn’t seem to have been changed radically by the adoption of foreign words. Users are capable of appropriating their own language and integrating it in to their own culture without becoming "colonised".” For him, the internet is a symbol of cultural “mixing”, rather than hegemony. And he has a point – it is not anglais that the French have so taken to using, but franglais – a language in which English terms are adapted, used and mis-used to fit with French grammar, sensibilities and convenience. The hybrid term for a car-park, un parking, is a good example of this, as is the French adoption of le week-end, and the adapted French verb for texting, textoter —   which can be conjugated in every which French tense and mood, including the subjunctive. English film titles are often re-translated for their French release with "The Hangover" being re-named "Very Bad Trip", and 2010 rom-com "No Strings Attached" becoming the rather more blunt, "Sex Friends."

In any case, whether mot-dièse catches on or not – in spoken French at least – "hashtag" will never sound American or British; though the French use English words, they are always pronounced as if they were French. It is not really a question of mot-dièse vs hashtag, but rather mot-diese vs. ‘ache-tague’, so really la belle langue always wins in the end.

Photograph: Getty Images
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Jeremy Corbyn's fans must learn the art of compromise

On both sides of the Atlantic, democracy is threatened by a post-truth world. 

Twenty years ago, as a new and enthusiastic Labour MP, I wrote an article for The Observer in praise of spin. I argued that if citizens are to be properly informed and engaged in their democracy, politicians - and in particular governments - have a duty to craft their messages carefully and communicate them cogently. It was a controversial notion then but less so now that we have entered the era of post-truth politics. In the old days, we used to "manage" the truth. Now we have abandoned it. 

We’ve probably come further than we think, for when truth is discarded, reason generally follows. Without a general acceptance of the broad "facts" of any matter, there can be little basis for rational debate nor, therefore, for either the consensus or the respectful disagreement which should emerge from it. Without a commitment to truth, we are free to choose and believe in our own facts and to despise the facts of others. We are free too to place our faith in leaders who make the impossible seem possible. 

We condemn the dictatorships which deny their citizens the right to informed and open debate. But in our own societies, unreasoned and often irrational politics are entering the mainstream. 

The politics of unreason

In the UK, the Leave campaign blithely wedded brazen falsehood to the fantasy that Brexit would cure all ills – and millions of voters enthusiastically suspended their disbelief.  “We want our country back” was a potent slogan - but no less vacuous than the pledge to “make America great again” on which Donald Trump has founded his election campaign. On both sides of the Atlantic, people want to take back control they know they never had nor ever will.

Both campaigns have deliberately bypassed rational argument. They play instead to the emotional response of angry people for whom reason no longer makes sense. Since the time of Plato and Aristotle, democracy’s critics have warned of the ease with which reason can be subverted and citizens seduced by the false oratory of charismatic leaders. Trump is just the latest in a long line of the demagogues they feared. He may not make it to the White House, but he has come a long way on unreasoning rhetoric - and where he leads, millions faithfully follow. He has boasted that he could commit murder on Fifth Avenue without losing votes and he may well be right.

But if Trump is extreme, he is not exceptional. He is a phenomenon of a populism of both right and left which has once more begun to challenge the principles of parliamentary democracy.

Democracy in decline

All over Europe and the United States, consumer-citizens are exasperated by democracy’s failure to meet their demands as fully and as fast as they expect. If the market can guarantee next day delivery, why can’t government? The low esteem in which elected politicians are held is only partly the consequence of their failings and failures. It is also evidence of a growing disenchantment with representative democracy itself. We do not trust our politicians to reflect our priorities. Perhaps we never did. But now we’re no longer prepared to acknowledge their unenviable duty to arbitrate between competing political, social and economic imperatives, nor ours to accept the compromises they reach - at least until the next election.

We have become protesters against rather than participants in our politics and, emboldened by hearing our chosen facts and beliefs reverberating around cyber space, have become increasingly polarised and uncompromising in our protest. 

The Trumpy Corbynites

Which brings us to Labour. Despite the obvious political differences between Jeremy Corbyn and Donald Trump, there are striking similarities in the movements which have coalesced around them. For many of their supporters, they can simply do no wrong; each criticism provides further evidence of a corrupt establishment’s conspiracy against them; rivals, including those who share many of their beliefs, are anathematised; unbelievers are pursued across the internet; inconvenient facts are reinterpreted or ignored; rational, civil debate is shut down or drowned out. 

There are other similarities in these insurgencies: both mistake slogans for policies and mass rallies for popular support; both are overwhelming and quite possibly destroying their own parties – and both, ultimately, are movements without practical purpose.

Trump may give vivid expression to his followers’ grievances but, other than building a wall along the Mexican border, his plans for government are obscure. Similarly, while Corbyn and his supporters know what they’re against, they have not yet articulated a clear vision of what they’re for, much less how it can be achieved. For many of them, it is enough to be "anti-Blairite". 

But in disassociating themselves from a Labour prime minister’s mistakes, they are also dismissing their party’s achievements under his leadership. Their refusal to acknowledge the need for compromise may well enable them to avoid the pitfalls of government. But government’s potential to bring about at least some of the change they want does not come without pitfalls. In wanting it all, they are likely to end up with nothing.

The art of compromise

Democracy cannot be sustained simply by what passionate people oppose. And though movements such as Momentum have important roles to play in influencing political parties, they cannot replace them. Their supporters want to be right - and they often are. But they are rarely prepared to test their principles against the practical business of government. The members of political parties want, or should want, to govern and are prepared, albeit reluctantly, to compromise – with each other, with those they seek to represent, with events -  in order to do so. Parties should listen to movements. But movements, if they are to have any practical purpose, must acknowledge that, for all its limitations, the point of politics is power.

We have to trust that the majority of American voters will reject Donald Trump. But closer to home, if Labour is to have a future as a political force, Corbyn’s supporters must learn to respect the historic purpose of the Labour party at least as much as they admire the high  principles of its current leader. There isn’t long for that realisation to take hold.

In the UK as in the US and elsewhere, we need to rediscover the importance of common cause and the art of compromise in forging it. The alternative is a form of politics which is not only post-truth, post-reason and post-purpose, but also post-democratic. 

Peter Bradley is a former MP and director of Speakers' Corner Trust, a UK charity which promotes free speech, public debate and active citizenship.