International Papers

French Food Fight

The French establishment is all choked up. Last week’s revelation that beret makers are going out of business was bad enough, but the latest outrage is really hard to swallow: The European Commission has overruled a French law banning the use of foreign words on food packaging. As long as there’s a picture of the product and the label uses a language that is “easily understood,” manufacturers no longer need to translate everything into French—”ailes de poulet” can be marked as “chicken wings” and “petales de mais” as “cornflakes.” Le Parisien moaned, “We’ll have to speak English to go shopping.”

Even French chauvinists are right sometimes. Britain’s Guardian reprinted excerpts from Le Figaro: “This is an attack on cultural diversity. It will be fine for the educated elite and those capable of translation but will condemn the vast majority of Europeans to illiteracy. … This is colonization pure and simple.” An indignant op-ed in today’s Le Figaro asked if a photo of chicken wings might not be confused with duck wings or bat wings (French supermarkets are scary places), and wondered if shoppers would be able to identify lamb’s brains or garlic sausage from photographs? What will be next, asked Romain Rochas, the names of streets and public places in Danish, town maps in Dutch, fire alarm instructions in Finnish?

A nutty op-ed in Le Monde presented the European Commission’s decision as a victory for multinationals, Anglophones, and one-size-fits all capitalism. “Today, national language diversity is the enemy, but why stop there? There are other differences that complicate sales, especially in relation to clothing: gender, size, color. … A unisex uniform, available in only one color and labeled in English, is the ideal for triumphant multinationals and, apparently, for European judges.” It concluded, “Commerce is just a pretext. The Anglophone party in Europe and the rest of the world … is annoyed by France less because it requires Coke or VCR salesmen to translate [their labels] than because it slows down the plans for Anglo-American hegemony.”