French staff of a US owned company, tired of struggling with company e-mails, manuals and meetings in English, took their fight to court today.
It was he latest flare-up in the French language’s struggle to maintain linguistic pre-eminence, at least at home.
“It is really for work purposes, so we can do our jobs competently,” Meslin, a GE Healthcare marketing assistant who also represents the CGT trade union, said of the court action. “It is in no way a question of pride.”
Pride, nevertheless, has a lot to do with French discomfort over the creep of English. A French law aimed at fending off English usage in business and on the airwaves marked its tenth anniversary this year.
French-language defenders keep an eagle-eye out for transgressions such as - quelle horreur! – English-language advertising.
The website of the Defence of the French Language, a group partly financed by France’s Culture Ministry, even has a page titled Museum of Horrors showing photos of English-language billboards on buses, at rail stations, airports and that most iconic of French institutions, the Paris Metro.
Today it awarded the annual English Doormat Prize for perceived offences against the French language to government adviser Claude Thelot, for recommending that foreign languages be taught as early as elementary school.
European Central Bank President Jean-Claude Trichet was awarded a special prize for often speaking in English instead of his native French. Bank spokesman Niels Bunemann said Trichet had no comment.
Unions at GE Healthcare based their court complaint on the Toubon Law, introduced in 1994, which makes French mandatory in a variety of situations, ranging from advertising to workplace documents employees need to do their jobs. The latter must be written in French but can be accompanied by translations.
The employees claim English has become the main language in their branch of GE in recent years for instruction manuals, company e-mails and meetings. Older employees, hired when English was not a requirement, find it particularly hard to adapt, they claim.
The case was brought by the left-wing CGT union and more moderate CFDT, and hearings opened in a court in Versailles west of Paris, union representatives said. A verdict is expected in January.
“We are asking for the translation into French of a certain number of documents and software applications. All we want is to be able to work well, in good conditions,” said Meslin, the CGT representative.
“It’s especially important for software,” she added. ”Already, in French, it’s not easy, so imagine what it’s like when it’s not your native language.”
Employees contend safety is also an issue because technicians may incorrectly assemble medical machines sold by the firm if they don’t understand instruction manuals.
GE Healthcare said it provides employees with translations of business communications and French language tools. The firm employs more than 1,500 people from 45 countries at its site in Buc, near Versailles, and from there exports to more than 100 countries.
“GE Healthcare is committed to upholding the highest standards when it comes to respecting local laws, customs and cultures in countries where it operates,” the statement said.
Employees say the company has made an effort since the complaint was filed in June, with all e-mails from management offered in English, French and other languages since September. The firm has also promised that a software package in French would be made available, employees said.