President Jacques Chirac said on Friday he had been so shocked to hear a fellow Frenchman speak English at a European Union summit the previous day that he had felt compelled to leave the room.
“I have to say I was profoundly shocked to see a Frenchman express himself in English at the (EU) Council table. That’s why the French delegation and myself walked out rather than listen to that,” Chirac told reporters.
Chirac said France had fought for a long time to ensure that French was spoken and used within multinational institutions, from the European Union and United Nations to the Olympic Games.
“It is not just national interest, it is in the interest of culture and the dialogue of cultures. You cannot build the world of the future on just one language and, hence one culture.”
French once dominated the EU, but English has overtaken it since the bloc expanded to take in Nordic countries in the 1990s and east European members in 2004.
Chirac, flanked by his foreign and finance ministers, quit the summit chamber on Thursday when Ernest-Antoine Seilliere, head of a European business lobby, switched from French to English during a speech to EU leaders.
Chirac missed Seilliere urging leaders to “resist national protectionism in order to avoid a negative domino effect” in the EU’s internal market, a veiled criticism of France and others who have tried to block cross-border takeovers.
English, French and German are the working languages of the 25-nation bloc, which has no single official language. All 20 languages of the member states are used at summits, ministerial meetings and in the European Parliament.