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Hollande’s faux pas saved by translator, but not Twitter

At a news conference during a visit to Japan on Friday, French President François Hollande referred to the Japanese as "the Chinese people". A quick-thinking translator seamlessly corrected the gaffe. But it was too late for Twitter.


More than 9,000 kilometres and a seven-hour time gap divides Paris from Tokyo. But jetlag is hardly an excuse for confusing your hosts with their not-so friendly neighbours – especially if you’re a world leader on an official foreign visit.

But French President François Hollande did just that on Friday during a joint news conference with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Tokyo.

The French Socialist president was referring to the January terrorist attack at the In Amenas facility in southern Algeria, in which 10 Japanese nationals were killed.

Speaking in French, Hollande noted that Japan – like France – had been affected by terrorism.

All very well so far – until Monsieur le president went on to “express the condolences of the French people to…the Chinese people.”

Chinese, Japanese, help him please.

That’s just what a translator – those unsung heroes who provide instant translations – did at Friday’s news conference.

The quick-thinking, impeccably-trained translator smoothly swapped the word “Chinese” with “Japanese” – rendering the sentence as it was intended.

Clinton and President, no Prime Minister, no Foreign Minister Juppé

World leaders and top diplomats do slip up occasionally. During a June 2011 joint news conference with then US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and then French Foreign Minister Alain Juppé, Clinton at one stage referred to Juppé as “the president”.

She realised her mistake at once and hastily corrected it to “the prime minister” before cracking up, reaching for Juppé and patting his shoulder before adding, “Excuse me, he’s been everything but that” – referring to the seasoned French politician’s track record, which includes a stint as French prime minister and two stints as foreign minister.

As the press pack laughed and Clinton grinned at her French counterpart, Juppé graciously thanked Clinton. She replied with a, “Yeah, yeah, I know - I haven’t either so we have something else in common,” referring of course to her failed bid to be the Democratic presidential candidate in the 2008 race.

But on this trip, the Frenchman made the slip. Hollande himself appeared not to notice the gaffe, plodding through his speech without correcting himself.

Relations between Japan and China are not warm – certainly not as warm as the waters around the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, which spark the occasional diplomatic row.

Luckily, the news conference was not broadcast live on Japanese TV – although some bilingual Japanese journalists caught the gaffe. The French press of course noticed the slip and Twitter erupted with tweets from correspondents at the news conference.

French officials travelling with Hollande told the press pack the French president was “tired”.

"It happens, ça arrive", as they say, in this age of jet-setting world leaders and diplomats.

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