How is John Kerry’s French? Pas mauvais. (Not bad)

Olivier Knox
The Ticket

Pas mal du tout, Monsieur Kerry. Not bad at all.

The Democratic former senator from Massachusetts learned French while attending a boarding school in Switzerland starting when he was 11. And he spent many childhood summers in the Atlantic coast region of Brittany with French relatives.

Those days are long gone—but while Kerry seemed a bit rusty, his opening remarks at a joint press conference with the French foreign minister sounded pretty solid to this native speaker (he starts at 4:51 in the video below, and a transcript is at the bottom of this post). And he poured on the charm to please his audience.

“We’ve just finished one of those wonderful French lunches that have never ceased drawing Americans to Paris for centuries,” he said, seemingly reading from notes or prepared remarks. And he also joked about anti-French sentiment in the United States. “And now I’ll speak in English because otherwise they won’t let me return home.”

Kerry’s gesture thrilled the French, who appreciate it when visiting dignitaries make an effort to speak their hosts’ language. Fabius, the French foreign minister, celebrated Franco-American cooperation on a range of foreign policy struggles like the bloodbath in Syria and Iran’s nuclear program—and hailed Kerry as “someone who is known to be a friend of France” (“quelqu’un qui est connu pour être un ami de la France”).

It was just a couple of weeks ago that the newly minted secretary of state, meeting with Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird, had declined a reporter’s request for “a little bit of French, please, maybe?” (“un peu de Français, s’il vous plait, peut-etre?” she asked).

“Not today—I’ve got to refresh myself on that,” Kerry said, drawing chuckles from his audience.

The French question is a vexing one for Kerry. During the 2004 presidential campaign, The New York Times raised eyebrows by granting anonymity to a “Bush adviser” who wanted to snipe from behind cover that the Democratic candidate “looks French.” That cheap shot, apparently code for “elitist,” caught fire in the media, stoked by perennial anti-French sentiment and still-fresh frustration that the government in Paris opposed the March 2003 invasion of Iraq. It was the era of renaming “French fries” as “Freedom Fries” in the congressional cafeteria (the French consider fries Belgian) and calling the “French kiss” something more acceptable to American audiences, “The Patriot Act.” (OK, that last one was, ahem, tongue in cheek.)

Times have changed. Somewhat. Throughout the 2012 campaign, Mitt Romney unhesitatingly spoke French to people he met on the trail (and he took crap for it—even from Democrats). Romney, who learned French when he lived in France as a Mormon missionary, does really well on his feet, has good sentence structure and, like Kerry, his mild accent doesn’t make him hard to understand.

Does any of this matter? Peut-être (maybe). Diplomacy is often a language of symbolism and nuances, after all.

And an old story, handed down by foreign language professors, may illustrate another usefulness.

The story goes that, in the early computer era, the CIA spent a fortune on a device that could translate intercepted messages. The chairman of the congressional committee that funded the project, on a tour, was invited to submit a phrase that would be translated from English, into French, then into German, then into Russian, then into Chinese, and then back into English. The lawmaker thought a moment, then suggested “out of sight, out of mind.”

The machine clacked and whirred and spat out a strip of paper. On it was the result: “Invisible. Insane.”

Kerry's remarks in French:

"Merci beaucoup, Monsieur le Ministre. Vraiment, c’est chaleureux, et je vous remercie beaucoup pour votre accueil aujourd’hui. C’est un très grand plaisir pour moi d’être en companie du ministre des affaires étrangères, Fabius. Nous venons de conclure un de ces merveilleux déjeuners français qui n’ont cessé d’attirer les Américains à Paris depuis des siècles. Bien entendu, c’est un privilège de pouvoir partager tout repas avec Laurent. Il est un ami de confiance, un allié fidèle et un partenaire apprécié, et je veux – je le remercie pour tout ça. La France, comme vous savez, est vraiment – c’est le plus ancien des alliés des Etats-Unis. On vous remercie pour ça aussi. Et maintenant je parle en anglais parce qu’autrement on me laisse pas rentrer chez moi."


"Thank you very much, Mister Minister. Really, that was [a] warm [welcome], and I thank you very much for your welcome today. It’s a great pleasure for me to be here with the minister of foreign affairs, Fabius. We just finished one of those wonderful French lunches that have never ceased drawing Americans to Paris for centuries. Of course, it’s a privilege to share any meal with Laurent. He is a trusted friend, a faithful ally, and a valued partner. and I want to thank him for all of that. France, as you know, is really—it's the oldest ally of the United States, so we would like to thank you for that, too. And now I'll speak in English, because otherwise they won’t let me return home.”

Secretary of State John Kerry busted out a bit of the language of Molière and Gérard Depardieu on Wednesday as he met in Paris with his French counterpart, Laurent Fabius. How’d he do?