Macron is more unpopular than Trump

In my year in France, I never once heard anyone speak with enthusiasm about Emmanuel Macron.

For those of you who’ve forgotten the bitterness of late 2018, let me summarize. The leading figure in the world trying to tear down the postwar liberal order is Donald Trump, the most destructive force the world has seen in my lifetime. Against him, the leading figure trying to sustain the postwar liberal order is Emmanuel Macron, the first truly international leader Europe has produced since Angela Merkel.

Yet as of this month, in their home countries, Macron’s popularity ratings are lower than Trump’s (low thirties vs. mid-thirties). “Well you know,” is the typical assessment of educated thoughtful French, “he’s a man of the Right.”

What this means in effect is that rather than stand up for the world we believe in, we prefer to wait for somebody better than Macron to come along, and then we’ll think again. I hope you see that this note is not about the French, but about human nature.

[16 October 2018]

False friends and sunny surprises

Getting deeper into French, for an English speaker, is a rich journey. I knew of the notion of false friends, but I had dimly imagined this was a universal effect to be found between any two languages. But no, the relationship of French and English is special.

First let me record a few false friends I hadn’t noticed before this year. I love the way navigation means sailing, and clairvoyant means seeing clearly, and a comedien is an actor, and apprecier means to assess, and sanitaire means health-related, and acquiescer means to agree. All like the English, yet not.

And let me mention some of the sunny surprises, discoveries that THAT’s where a certain English word came from! Today’s Le Monde reports a couvre-feu — a curfew. The participle aisé is a French word for easy. Represailles gives us reprisals, and effrayé afraid, and ennuyé annoyed, and nuisé noisy. A tailleur is one who cuts and measures, a tailor, and a pair is an equal, a peer, and farouche turns into ferocious. The word dûment puzzled me until I realized that ment here is just the adverbial suffix as usual and can be translated into “ly”. And in a biography of Napoleon I got a kick out of a general who had to se rendre. Surrender!

[15 September 2018]

Nuclear power and the flu

The public hates nuclear power, and one reason may be that the name reminds us of nuclear weapons. Would history have turned out differently if a less alarming name had been adopted early on? The model is magnetic resonance imaging, a clever branding of the technology of nuclear magnetic resonance.

I’ve noticed an example in the other direction, a case where we might have been better off if a more alarming name had been adopted. The disease we call “the flu” is lethal, but vaccination rates are low. Perhaps part of the problem is that the flu sounds so familiar, like a family pet. It might be better if we called it influenza.

[1 October 2018]