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
Photo: Getty Images
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How can the left make the case for immigration?

All too often, we drift into telling people we want to convince that they just don't get it.

We don’t give the public enough credit. You’ll often hear their views dismissed with sighs in intellectual circles. In fact on most issues the public are broadly sensible, most are these days supportive of cutting the deficit and dubious about political giveaways, but in favor of protecting spending on the NHS and education. Yet there is one issue where most, “knowledgeable” folks will tell you the public are well out of step: immigration. 

With [today’s] net migration figures showing yet another record high, it is an ever more salient issue. On a lot of measures ‘too much immigration’ ranks highest as the number one concern (see Ipossmori). The ongoing rise of right wing political parties across Europe demonstrates that simply enough. But concerns about immigration don’t just sit with those with more extreme views, they’re also shared across the mainstream of public opinion. Yet unlike thinking on cutting the deficit or funding the NHS the public consensus that immigration is bad for Britain, flies flat in the face of the intellectual consensus, and by that I mean the economics. 

Given the intense public debate many a study has tried to spell out the economic impact of immigration, most find that it is positive. Immigration boosts the nation’s GDP. As the theory goes this is because immigrants bring with them entrepreneurialism and new ideas to the economy. This means firstly that they help start new ventures that in turn create more wealth and jobs for natives. They also help the supply chains to keep ticking. A example being British agriculture, where seasonal workers are are needed, for example, to pick the strawberries which help keeps the farms, the truckers and the sellers in business. 

Most studies also find little evidence of British jobs being lost (or displaced) due to immigrants, certainly when the economy is growing. Indeed economists refer to such “ “they’re” taking our jobs” arguments as the “lump of labour fallacy’. On top of all that the average migrant is younger than the native population and less likely to rely on welfare, so their net contribution to the state coffers are more likely to be positive than natives as they don’t draw as much state spending from pensions or the NHS. 

So why haven't the public cottoned on? Many progressive types dismiss such views as racist or xenophobic. But it turns out this is to misunderstand the public just as much as the public ‘misunderstand’ immigration. When you study people’s views on immigration more closely it becomes clear why. Far from being racist most people asked by focus groups cite practical concerns with immigration. Indeed if you go by the British Social Attitudes Survey a much smaller number of people express racist view than say they are concerned about migration.  

The think tank British Future broadly set out that while a quarter of people are opposed to immigration in principle and another quarter are positive about it the majority are concerned for practical reasons - concerns about whether the NHS can cope, whether there are enough social houses, whether our border controls are up to scratch and whether we know how many people are coming here in the first place (we don’t since exit checks were scrapped, they only came back a few months ago). But more than anything else they also have very little confidence that government can or wants to do anything about it. 

This truth, which is to often ignored, begets two things. Firstly, we go about making the argument in the wrong way. Telling someone “you don’t understand immigration is good for our economy etc etc” is going to get a reaction which says “this person just doesn't get my concerns”. Despite the moans of progressives, this is precisely why you won't hear left leaning politicians with any nous ‘preaching’ the the unconditional benefits of immigration.

More importantly, the economic arguments miss the central issue that those concerned with immigration have, that the benefits and effects of it are not shared fairly. Firstly migrants don’t settle homogeneously across the country, some areas have heavy influxes other have very little. So while the net effect of immigration may be positive on the national tax take that doesn't mean that public services in certain areas don’t loose out. Now there isn't clear evidence of this being the case, but that could just as well be because we don’t record the usage of public services by citizenship status. 

The effects are also not equal on the income scale, because while those of us with higher incomes scale tend to benefit from cheep labour in construction, care or agriculture (where many lower skilled migrants go) the lower paid British minority who work in those sectors do see small downward pressure on their wages. 

It’s these senses of unfairness of how migration has been managed (or not) that leads to the sense of concern and resentment. And any arguments about the benefit to the UK economy fail to answer the question of what about my local economy or my bit of the labour market. 

Its worth saying that most of these concerns are over-egged and misused by opponents of immigration. Its only a small factor in stagnating wages, and few local areas are really overrun. But the narrative is all important, if you want to win this argument you have to understand the concerns of the people you are trying to convince. That means the right way to make the argument about immigration is to start by acknowledging your opponents concerns - we do need better border controls and to manage demands on public services. Then persuade them that if we did pull up the drawbridge there is much we’d loose in smart entrepreneurs and in cultural diversity. 

Just whatever you do, don’t call them racist, they’re probably not.

Steve O'Neill was deputy head of policy for the Liberal Democrats until the election.