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Lost in translation? French finance minister’s lack of English baffles US bankers

Frederick brown / AFP | French Finance Minister Michel Sapin (R), visits French tech booths on the showroom floor at the 2017 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Nevada, USA, on January 5, 2017.

French Finance Minister Michel Sapin failed to impress US bankers in a pitch to move their London operations to Paris following Brexit – because he spoke to them in French through an interpreter.

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Sapin was visiting Washington DC during October’s G20 meetings, the Financial Times reported Monday, when he addressed senior bankers at Goldman Sachs and Bank of America as well as Swiss giant UBS over lunch.

None of the banks present have commented publicly on the meeting, or whether they are likely to move London operations to Paris. However, one unnamed source told the newspaper that the fact the French minister of finance needed an interpreter -- unlike the previous finance minister Emmanuel Macron who is fluent in English -- was “a negative.”

The language issue also likely raised questions about the feasibility of Paris as a an international business capital.

More attractive alternatives

France languishes near the bottom of the list of EU countries on the EF English Proficiency Index, behind Bulgaria, Spain and Italy, with a score of 54.33 percent.

At the top of the Index are more attractive EU destinations for English speakers, including The Netherlands (in first place with a proficiency of 72.16 percent), Denmark and Sweden, countries where fluency in English is almost universal.

Times may be changing in France, however, as younger people expect their leaders to be able to speak confidently in English on the international scene.

A 2015 survey by language school ABA English found that 41 percent of students expected French President François Hollande to be “perfectly fluent”, and another 49 percent expected him to be merely “fluent”. Only two percent said the issue was not important.

However, the political old guard continues to make use of any language other than French a taboo subject in French politics, ostensibly as a mark of respect for the French language (or, as a practical measure to hide individuals’ inability to speak English, or their incomprehensible accents).

At the beginning of January, French presidential hopeful Emmanuel Macron (himself a former investment banker, who speaks English fluently), found himself under a barrage of criticism for addressing an audience in Berlin in English.

Florian Philippot, right-hand man to far-right leader Marine Le Pen, treated it like the very worst of sins, tweeting: "It's not just that he doesn't respect our language, he doesn't believe in France".

Even Macron, who regularly gives interviews to British and American media in English, was forced on the defensive.

His press spokeswoman told FRANCE 24 that “he only spoke in English because there were no facilities for an interpreter at the meeting” in Berlin, and that otherwise he would have observed protocol, and spoken in French.

France in drive for London business

France is eager to attract companies who feel that there is uncertainty in post-Brexit Britain, as it heads for a potentially tumultuous divorce from the European Union.

Last week, HSBC confirmed plans to move 1,000 employees from London to Paris.

The Financial Times also reported UBS saying that a similar number of its London-based workers may need to relocate because of Brexit, while JPMorgan Chase announced 4,000 of its 16,000 British employees could be similarly affected. But neither of them have said exactly where they would move to.

According to the report, Sapin said France’s relatively high corporate tax rates were being reappraised, while bankers were seeking reassurance on schooling, terrorism and income tax rates.

Furthermore, they also want a working environment where they can be understood, hence the potentially serious “negative” of Sapin speaking to US business leaders in French rather than the international business language of English.

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