Halloween has become a controversial subject in France, where the Catholic Church has decided to go on a crusade against it, mainly by reinforcing its own celebrations of Toussaint, or All Saints' Day. Halloween is commercial and American, two words that are practically synonymous in France with "evil." Since the Catholic Church lives comfortably with Halloween in the United States and Ireland (both far more religious countries than France), and since the Church in France does not object to other paganisms such as Christmas trees and Easter eggs, I can't help feeling that the attacks on the beloved children's holiday are motivated much less by real concern for religion than by that ever-green demagogic favorite, anti-Americanism.
Of course, the reason All Saints' Day is a Church holiday at all is that the Celts of all nations celebrated Halloween at the end of October, a day when the doors between the worlds were open, when the dead were remembered. The Church, following the "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em," precept, co-opted the festival into All Saints' Day, which was belatedly moved from May to November 1st.
Over the weekend the local rag, Le Parisien , published four pages of articles on defending French culture against the perceived American invasion.
My comments are in brackets in green.
"Halloween: The Church Fights Back"
"Religion. While the fashion of Halloween has lessened, the Church is leading an offensive on an unusually broad front, notably in Paris, to take back the holiday of All Saints' Day. Starting today, more than 500 events, mainly for young people."
"Halloween pumpkins are going to make faces when they hear about this. Already they are having more and more trouble, and now they are the target, scarcely veiled, of a spectacular counter-attack of the Church. Starting today (Saturday 23 October), all of Paris will be singing Alleluia to celebrate All Saints' Day. For the first time in France, the Catholics of Paris are organizing, from October 23rd till November 1st, almost 500 events all over the capital: 120 concerts and shows, 158 panels, 55 exhibitions and 54 charity events, which will take place in the churches, open till late in the evening, but also in such profane spots as restaurants, public spaces, and bars!
"'The success of Holy Win, an operation launched in 2002 by young Catholics against Halloween, convinced us that the moment was ripe for pulling in the most people,' explains the vicar of the Diocese of Paris, Father Nahmias, responsible for the operation baptized Paris Toussaint [All Saints] 2004. 'We have been reproached for being too quiet: these events, organized by the congregations of the parishes, aim to make the multiple Christian communities that exist in every Paris neighborhood more visible.' "....
"Poll: Should the Church fight against Halloween?"
Mohamed Idri, 32, Construction Supervisor, Charleville-Mezieres
"There is no reason for this conflict to exist, especially since Halloween is a very recent fact since it has really been observed in France only for the past five or six years. It is obvious that the Church is mainly trying to protect the age-old advantages it has had and even more its business. Because that is what it is about, more than anything."
Mickael Roch, 27, Technical inspector, Chelles
"Traditions are being lost over the years, and the Church realizes it, but All Saints' Day is still an important religious festival in the life of quite a few people in our country. On the other hand, we need to keep Halloween, because it's more of a big children's festival than a religious holiday."
Colette Campoy, 36, Accountant, Gagny
"I find it normal for the Church to try to preserve All Saints' Day, because in France it's an important religious holiday. On the other hand, it is hard to stop Halloween from being present on that date. I have a nine-year-old daughter and I don't see myself forbidding her to take part, especially since it's celebrated in schools and associations."
Gilles Gauchez, 57, Retired, Cregy
"There, the Church is not at all in its proper role, and I do not see why, and above all how, it can forbid another holiday, even foreign, at this time of year. That is what I freely think even though I'm not for Halloween either. Both holidays are really artificial and I admit I'm not very interested."
Zoran Novakovic, 44, Restaurant Employee, Paris 10e
"The Church is absolutely right to fight about this because it is normal for All Saints' Day to remain the big religious holiday of this period of the year. By the way, since I don't work on Saturday, there is a good chance I will go to one of the many events that are going to take place all during this weekend in Paris to defend our culture."
"A Healthy Reaction!" Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger, Archbishop of Paris
Le Parisien: Paris Toussaint [All Saints] 2004 is a first. What is the philosophy behind it?
Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger, Archbishop of Paris: All Saints' Day, for the French, is also the Festival of the Dead. Christians have taken over this festival, which goes back to the dawn of humankind. Death is still just as cruel today. Is it an absurdity or the end of our misery? Looking at this question, we want to share with everyone our hope and the promise of happiness that our faith gives us. It is a question of honesty: one cannot keep to oneself the secret of life.
Le Parisien: Is it a question of countering Halloween, and more widely, the consumer society?
Cardinal Lustiger: They have been trying to make us take pumpkins for jack-o-lanterns. The French people have not been fooled by the commercial trick of Halloween. It is a healthy reaction of our critical spirit. But serious questions remain: what is life? What is death? Is there a life stronger than death?....[Remainder of interview about religion and the schedule of events]--Interviewed by G.D.
"The pumpkin does not want to be demonized"
"In the little war that is opposing religion and squash, the Halloween merchants do not plan a bloody reprisal. The bakers, candy-makers, pumpkin-, costume- and toy-sellers are keeping a low profile this year. They might just remind us that Halloween has Celtic roots. It must be said that since 1996, date of the arrival of the holiday in France, they have received a lot of criticism. 'It is good that the Church is reacting against the loss of its chapels, that it lights candles and hangs up crosses. That way All Saints' Day can become a real religious festival again," explains Benoit Pousset, president of the board of directors of César, number one for costumes in France. "We can thank Halloween for the joyful resuscitation of All Saints' Day. For a long time, it was a sad moment mainly consecrated to cemetery visits.'
"An occasion for fun"
"Far from distracting from a sacred moment, Halloween then is supposed to have contributed to making it more sacred. A well-considered position. For the marketing people, there is no question of crusading against the 20% of the French population who said in 2002 that they would never celebrate Halloween either because they were practicing Catholics or because they were anti-American. [I told you so!] 'This holiday is pagan, certainly, but it is not the opposite of All Saints' Day. They are not the same day, and Halloween is just for fun. There is no reason to demonize us,' insists the manager of César. Two years ago, 80% of the French said that October 31st was above all an occasion to have fun. 'Today, Halloween interests, above all, the children. They have the chance to disguise themselves and scare each other. This allows 'them to exorcise their fears. It is only a carnival where people frighten themselves a bit,' observes Eric Le Mélinaire, Director of Marketing for Toys 'R Us. 'There is no reason to feed polemics on the subject.'
"The holiday, strongly attacked this year, had already lost its shine. Toy sales relating to Halloween are 10 times less than five years ago. The holiday represents only 10% of César's business in Europe-- against 100% for its American subsidiary. To avoid being demonized, the costume company reviewed its products three seasons ago: less blood and gore in the stores, and the costumes are 'Scary but Cute'. The ghosts wear funny mugs. The goal of the game? 'It is just for children to say "Boo!"' "
Here is another hoary subject in the French newspapers (below). French young people seem to take English in stride. It is the older generation, raised to believe that French was the language of universal culture, that feels betrayed by the rise of the new world language. I do feel for their dismay, especially in the face of the kind of ridiculous Anglophone arrogance reported by Le Parisien: for example, the refusal of General Electric Medical Systems, based just outside Paris, to translate the maintenance manuals for its widely sold hospital equipment into French, on the grounds that it would be "too expensive." The French are obviously right to fight for their language.
No, what bugs me is when these middle-aged commentators contrast the wonderful, high-culture, "European" language of (standard phrase) "our dear Shakespeare" --i.e., British English the way they studied it back at the lycée, when knighthood was in flower--, with the "commercial dialect", the "degraded transatlantic jargon", the "mercantile language"--i.e. American English, which they deplore. Translations from North America are actually labeled "Translated from the American," confirming the French belief that the two versions of English are fundamentally different. I have had French people ask me if I understand British English; I know of a French girl whose parents told her not to make friends with an American girl in her school, so she would not pick up the wrong accent. The funny thing is that French schoolchildren who go to Britain to learn English are sent to places and families where they will scarcely pick up the Queen's English they long for, which is spoken anyway by a minuscule and ever-diminishing portion of the British population.
Despite anti-American snobbery, rare indeed is a Frenchman who can actually tell the difference between normal American and British texts or speech.
"The French Language in Danger"
"The language of Molière is in difficulties, including in the working world. According to an official study, 7% of French businesses have already changed to 'all English', in spite of the employees. A fashion criticized by the linguist Alain Rey."
"Thanks to globalization, most French businesses are submerged by the forced march of Anglicization and the obligation of 'english fluently spoken' [sic]. This is obviously the case for those who work in export businesses, where the mastery of Anglo-American is demanded for all commercial, managerial, or marketing posts. But we are seeing more and more managers, themselves rather ill at ease in the language of Shakespeare, who oblige their white-collar employees to speak in English in board meetings or management meetings. 'It is high comedy to watch these employees stuttering out their airport English, when it would be so simple, and surely more efficient, for them to speak their own language,' says Thierry Priestley, president of the association Droit de comprendre [the Right to Understand].
"Foreigners in our own country"
"Certainly, one can always be amused by this arrogant fashion that is currently making its way through certain French businesses. But it illustrates a much more disquieting phenomenon: the retreat of the language of Molière, not only in its own country, but in all the international settings where French is still, in principle, one of the official languages. ' All the work documents which we receive from the Commission are in English,' complains one employee of the European Community. 'We are obliged to translate them into French, then to answer in English. It's absurd!'
"According to a study of the Paris Chamber of Commerce and Industry, half of French businesses estimate that globalization forces them to adopt this new Esperanto as their single language, and 7% of them have already moved to 'all-English.' This is certainly the case for businesses bought by foreign groups, but also of French-French businesses like Axa, where a managerial employee was recently the object of a reprimand because he replaced the obligatory English by German in a letter addressed to a correspondent...from Austria.
"But the gravest consequences remain the work conditions for the many employees who feel excluded and humiliated, even put out to pasture, because they do not speak English well. 'To ask employees to talk in a language they speak badly is to put them in a state of inferiority. It is comparable to harassment,' judges Jean-Pierre Burdin, in charge of intercultural affairs for the union CGT.
"'Foreigners in our own country, put aside for knowing only our mother tongue, this situation is intolerable,' wrote the CGT union employees of Renault Vehicules Industriels to their new bosses from Volvo [Sweden]. Others, like the pilots' union of Air France, or those of General Electric Medical Systems in Buc, have brought their businesses to court for violating the Loi Toubon. That law obliges 'businesses working in France to use the French language for any document bearing obligations for the salaried employee or information which is necessary for the execution of his work. In particular, accounting or technical documents, maintenance manuals....' It is really quite extraordinary that a French pilot landing in Senegal must communicate in English with the air-traffic controllers who speak French as well as you and I, risking a grave error of interpretation,' complains a pilot, who reminds us that many accidents have been caused by badly pronounced English."
"We must fight against the hegemony of a language" [Yeah, right. Where were these anti-language-hegemony fighters when French was the international language? Supporting Napoleon, that's where.]
Alain Rey, linguist.
In charge of the Petit Robert Dictionary and a reputed linguist, Alain Rey explains to our newspaper why the supremacy of English is not inevitable.
Le Parisien: Do you think that the combat of certain union leaders against the --illegal--obligation to use English as the work language in business is hopeless?
Alain Rey: Not at all. The systematic use of English is an effect of fashion, by the way rather ridiculous. You notice that certain businessmen force their coworkers to speak English among themselves, while they themselves speak it very badly. There is nothing shocking in the fact that in certain companies that work internationally, part of the personnel speaks a foreign language. But there is not just English. All languages have rights. And if English dominates international relations today, I am convinced that in twenty years it will be less important than Chinese.
Le Parisien: What is more disturbing, the systematic use of English, or the replacement of concept words in French by Anglicisms, which are becomes jargon?
Alain Rey: All languages are permeable to the influence of other languages; French as well as English, where half the expressions are French in origin. The penetration of certain Anglicisms into the economic language is almost inevitable. Like the word 'management,' for example, which comes, by the way, from the French word 'ménage.' On the other hand, we must struggle against the global hegemony of a language. For example, in computer science, when it was just for engineers, people educated in the United States, it was normal that their software should be in English. But today, computers are a universal tool of work, and there is no inevitability in the informations systems' being in English. Unless we create a double standard, between those who use it and others. I understand why the unions are upset.
Le Parisien: Especially when this ends up as a jargon, often unclear, incomprehensible for most employees.
Alain Rey: Giving language courses in English, or for that matter in other European languages, to all employees who need them, that's very good. I defend bilingualism. But when people are asked to conform to a jargon [Ah, here it comes. Unusually, Mr Rey does not bring up "notre cher Shakespeare," but otherwise, this is the standard below-the-belt anti-American line:] borrowed from the American [My smelling salts, please!], which is often not identical from one country to the next, that is what is unbearable. It is good to remember, all the same, that our language is the reflection of our culture, the one we grew up in, and that it is one of the main bonds of the community to which we belong. [Irreproachable sentiments. Maybe I shouldn't take everything so personally.]
--Interview by J.D.