When I was a kid at school, we had the habit of reacting to verbal insults by means of the following ditty:
Stick and stones can break my bones
But words can never hurt me
This lilting incantation was quite effective in the case of the supreme insult in Graftonian scholastic circles, which consisted of having one's face described by a poetic urchin as resembling "a sucked mango seed".
In France, I had got into the habit of thinking that most people are mature enough to consider that mere words are rarely lethal, and that we shouldn't normally be disturbed by apparent insults of a purely verbal nature. Recently, however, there have been several spectacular incidents suggesting that certain individuals believe that words can hurt them no less than sticks and stones.
Back in January, the Socialist boss of the Languedoc-Roussillon region, Georges Frêche, was speaking of a fellow-Socialist, former prime minister Laurent Fabius. "For me , it would be a problem to vote for that guy in Normandy. His face isn't Catholic." For ages, the expression about such-and-such a thing being "not Catholic" has been used in everyday French as a trivial synonym—devoid of religious connotations—for "irregular" or "unorthdox". Now, Frêche is a big-mouthed bumpkin with hordes of friends down in his Mediterranean region. They admire him (in spite of his frequent verbal faux pas) because of his huge local achievements of a political nature. Everybody realized, of course, that his derogatory remarks concerning Fabius were nothing more than a quip of the kind: "I wouldn't buy a used car from that guy." The problem, though, is that Fabius is a Jew, and the idea of his not having a "Catholic look" sounded immediately like a racist remark, based upon his physical appearance. Consequently, in the context of the forthcoming regional elections, the Socialist party officially "disowned" Frêche... which did not prevent him from obtaining a huge electoral victory.
Everything would have been so much simpler if party authorities, instead of outlawing Frêche, had simply said to him: "Georges, why don't you control your language? At times, you give us the impression that you're a silly old bugger. And this is a pity, because we know it's not true." Ah, if only serious politicians could talk among themselves, from time to time, in such a cool style...
The next storm in a verbal teacup occurred on TV, on March 6, when a brilliant but pugnacious journalist, Eric Zemmour, declared: "French people with an immigrant background are stopped more often than other citizens for police checks because most drug dealers are Blacks and Arabs." The journalist was immediately accused of racism, and there are rumors that he might be sacked by his employer, the Figaro group. Furthermore, Zemmour dared to suggest that the TV celebrity who had interviewed him on TV, Thierry Ardisson, had contributed deliberately to the creation of a troubled atmosphere in the studio... and now Ardisson is attacking Zemmour for slander. A respected TV personality, Rachid Arhab, referred to himself when he stated: "A person can be Arab without being a drug dealer." From a logical viewpoint, this truism was a totally irrelevant comment.
Meanwhile, a distinguished judge, Philippe Bilger, attempted to calm things down by pointing out publicly that an observer only has to attend court trials against drug dealers to learn that Zemmour's remark was perfectly factual. Once again, it's a pity that the simple juxtaposition of the words "Blacks", "Arabs", "police checks" and "drug dealers" is enough to send everybody into a state of illogical frenzy.
A third case of words with the apparent damaging power of sticks and stones has arisen since the second round of the regional elections. Observers have been trying to analyze, among other things, the unexpected success of the extreme Rightists led by Jean-Marie Le Pen. Last year, Nicolas Sarkozy called upon a minister named Eric Besson to investigate a curious subject: the so-called "national identity" of the French. Primarily, this operation consisted of defining what it means to be an authentic French citizen. Inversely, it put the spotlight upon immigrants and minorities who were stigmatized indirectly as being un-French... and this fallout played into the hands of Le Pen and his xenophobic followers. Conclusion: It was Besson—who happened to be a recent defector from the Socialist party (in other words, a kind of traitor)—whose preoccupation with national identity had created the necessary conditions for Le Pen's high electoral score.
A few days ago, a brilliant but vitriolic radio journalist, Stéphane Guillon, painted a harsh portrait of Eric Besson, designating him as "unpleasant", a "Mata Hari" of politics, with "weasel eyes and a receding chin, a true portrait of Iago" (the sinister villain in Shakespeare's Othello). Not unexpectedly, Besson didn't like to hear himself described in such terms on France's state-owned radio, and he swore vengeance upon Guillon. Now, this was probably a silly move, because there's a time-honored tradition in France of granting total liberty to humorists to produce harsh caricatures... through images, comedy sketches and, of course, plain words. That's to say, the anger of Besson is likely to backfire on him, and land him in trouble.
At the present moment, I don't know whether or not Eric Zemmour and/or Stéphane Guillon are going to be punished for their strong words. I don't think so, and I certainly hope not. In any case, it's reassuring to see that percussive words, in France, can apparently have as great an impact as punching a guy in the face, or breaking his bones with sticks and stones.