Latin and ancient Greek are not dead languages in modern France


It’s not the politics, it’s the Latin and Greek. For someone returning to Paris after years away, what is striking about France is not the ambition of a president who compares his role to that of the king of the gods — nothing peculiarly French there in the age of Donald Trump — but the delightful persistence of classical history and mythology in public discourse. Emmanuel Macron’s early belief in a “Jupiterian” presidency for contemporary France is one example.

After Mr Macron tried to reconnect with voters in a “great national debate” this year to defuse the anti-government gilets jaunes protests, the newspaper Le Figaro published a story with a headline about how hard it was for Mr Macron “to be both Caesar and the tribune of the plebs at the same time”. No further explanation needed.

Easy familiarity with the classics is particularly prevalent among politicians — Dominique de Villepin, the former prime minister, liked to quote the Greek philosopher Heraclitus at the drop of a hat — but French financiers and industrialists have no reason to feel left out.

A question to an investment banker in a Paris bar about the fate of Carlos Ghosn, the former high-flying Renault-Nissan boss detained in Japan on charges of misusing company assets, prompted the immediate response: “Ah yes, the Tarpeian rock is close to the Capitol!” — a rather magnificent way of saying that pride comes before a fall, referencing the proximity of the seat of Roman power to the rock from which victims were flung to their execution.

Boris Johnson, the UK prime minister, managed to generate a few chuckles at the UN in September when his speech compared Brexit negotiations to Zeus’s eternal punishment of Prometheus, his liver pecked out daily by an eagle, for having brought fire to mankind. Yet the efforts by Mr Johnson and his fellow Brexiter Jacob Rees-Mogg to deploy Latin or Greek sometimes seem forced. They also draw mockery and accusations of pretentiousness from hostile British voters.

In France, by contrast, classical allusions seem embedded in the broader language and culture. No one blinks when a French politician or business leader complains that Brexit has been delayed until les calendes grecques — that is to say, indefinitely, since calends were part of Rome’s dating system, not ancient Greece’s.

It would be rash to assume that classical references are universally understood in France beyond the Paris Périphérique, the ring road within which much of the elite live and work, but writers such as Laurent Gaudé reckon these phrases are less awkward than they might be elsewhere because they have become part of public discourse. “It’s not always seen right away as a form of aggressive pretentiousness,” he says.

Mr Gaudé sees a “reciprocal fascination” between politicians and intellectuals in France where politicians and business leaders write lots of books and philosophers and authors make a living from political and social commentary.

Mr Gaudé also argues that classical myth and history, especially Greek, remain relevant in today’s violent world.

“It’s still alive, it’s not just a sort of ‘dead culture’,” he says. “After Isis rose up in Iraq . . . there were Islamists who dragged the bodies of their enemies behind their trucks. It reminded me of the Trojan war.”

The classics thus live on vigorously in French culture. It’s hard not to revel in a language where the Brexit crisis is “protéiforme” (constantly changing shape, like the sea-god Proteus), the president’s term is a “quinquennat” (five years), bad things are “néfastes” (ill-omened), and patrons of the arts are “mécènes” (after Maecenas, who supported Virgil and Horace).

These are all words in common currency in France, where highly educated politicians, civil servants and chief executives all wear their intellectualism lightly.

At a recent summit in Brussels, some journalists puzzled over why Mr Macron had complained that EU enlargement had become the “theology of Europe” to justify his exclusion of North Macedonia and Albania from the start of the accession process. In fact, the French president said no such thing. He said it had become the teleology of Europe. Only a few foreigners had to look it up.

victor.mallet@ft.com



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