The importance of language in politics has rarely been as clear as it is now. Listen to a French radio station, tune in to a French TV programme and you will hear the words "racaille" (rabble, scum) and "kärcher" (powerhose). In reference to the problems in some Paris suburbs, Nicolas Sarkozy, the French Interior Minister, has made his views clear about the scum in some areas of Paris who need to be cleaned away with high powered water hoses.
These comments have been applauded by a portion of the population, who appreciate Sarkozy’s straight-talking style. Why, after all, should he avoid using language that is actually commonly used on the street? Everyone knows that there are huge problems in the suburbs, where unemployment is high and drug dealers rule. Why not call a spade a spade?
The problem as I see it is that language takes a completely different dimension according to who uses it. I wouldn’t be shocked to hear someone in a café using such simplistic and emotional terms to describe a problem of which they probably have a very simplistic and emotional understanding. However, hearing one of the leaders of your country (who has made his intentions of one day becoming the president of France very clear) proffer them is another matter entirely. He is an intelligent man, who was elected to help rule a country of 60 million people. Yes, he is a right-wing politician, and this language probably reflects his deep-seated beliefs and those of the people who elected him. However, in his position, one might expect him to be able to use language in a non-inflammatory way rather than expressing his disgust and scorn towards some of the population through such insulting terms.
In this difficult context, using carefully-chosen words is crucial. Simplistic, emotional, hard-hitting language appears to have done nothing but made the situation worse by exacerbating the frustration not only of the people it targets, but also of the law-abiding inhabitants of the suburbs who, through no fault of their own, found themselves lumped in with the "racaille" group. It will be interesting to see in the short term how the government will deal with this crisis, and, in the longer term, whether Sarkozy’s use of language will have an impact on his political ambitions.
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