Mr. Toubon has proposed a law aimed at protecting the French language by banning foreign words and phrases in most modes of communication, including advertising. The bill, which Parliament will debate this spring, is the most recent in a long series of legislative efforts dating back to 1539 to fortify French against the creeping intrusion of foreign tongues-notably the dreaded English.
If passed, the law would cause major headaches. Since foreign words would be banned where French variants exist-no matter how stilted or unwieldy-advertising would be transformed in practice and in spirit.
Enforcement would alter the ad industry's very own designation-referred to universally as "marketing" by the French. The closest French word is mercatique, literally translated as "marketing" but never used by marketers or agencies and totally alien to French ears.
The law would not only apply to foreign ads using English, but would also pose problems for French advertisers. State-owned car company Renault, for example, would have to lose its Robert Palmer theme music "Johnny's Always Running Around," and appetizer producer Belin would have to render the names for Crackers Belin and Chipsters Belin products a la Francaise.
State telecommunications agency France Telecom would be forced to de-Anglicize by adding acute accents to the "e's" in Telecom, and the Channel Tunnel's Le Shuttle train service would have to adopt a decidedly more French moniker.
"I find it totally abhorrent for a government to try and legislate the use of language, particularly when it has very urgent and real social problems it should be attending to," said Dominique Julian, deputy director of Saatchi & Saatchi France. Ms. Julian noted that only about "3% of ads in France use foreign languages."
Similar bills in the past have been rejected or passed without a means of enforcement. Parliament's conservative majority is, moreover, divided over the issue.
But the French-first movement has been politically non-partisan, and worrying precedents do exist. Back in the mid-1980s, with the proliferation of personal stereos, former Socialist Culture Minister Jack Lang successfully fought to establish the French variant baladeur, or "walker," instead of Walkman, as the standard name.