Understanding 'le Brexit'

04/05/2016 11:02

The clichéd view of the French is that they are hostile towards new English words trying to migrate into their language. But this hasn't been true for quite a while now, as lovers of les smoothies (pronounced "smooty") and les wraps ("vrap") will confirm.

And one word that has been instantly adopted is "le Brexit". No sooner was the date of the referendum announced than the French media began bandying the new English term about.

I was caught off guard by this, so I didn't understand the first time a French journalist rang me up asking for a comment on the likelihood of "un breg-zeat". Once I'd worked out what he was talking about, I duly commented to the effect that I thought it was too tight to call, but that the debate (if it could be called that) was taking on a definite shape: a Remain spokesperson would outline economic or political arguments for staying in the EU, to which their Leave counterpart would immediately answer that it was all just scaremongering and should be ignored. Either that or warnings about immigration would be issued, and then promptly contradicted. It was what the French call un dialogue de sourds, a dialogue of the deaf - a term presumably coined before the invention of sign language or lip-reading.

When my comment was printed in a French newspaper, it earned me a second call, which I understood first time. Well, I got the reference to "bregg-zeat", but couldn't work out why on earth a French bank would want to invite me to speak on the subject at a breakfast meeting for their investors.

I told the banquier that I was neither a political expert, nor a financier, nor even a journalist really. My articles are all personal impressions, nothing more. But despite my warnings, the invitation to dunk a free croissant at one of Paris's poshest hotels still stood.

When I walked into the room a few mornings later, I was the only male not wearing a tie, the only person of any gender not wearing sharply creased trousers. I was stared at as if I'd taken a wrong turn on my way to start a shift at the dishwasher.

So when one of the banquiers introduced me, I did my best to lower expectations that I might have anything useful to say.

"My only connection to the world of finance," I told the dozen or so high flyers, "is that when I go to London, I usually stay near Canary Wharf, where I see bankers jogging or cycling to work. And all I know about them is that since 2008 there are fewer of them, and they jog faster."

I then settled down to listen to a presentation about the possible implications of "le bregg-zeat", which, for a nation that is meant to be emotional, was startlingly cool-headed. Everything, the economist explained, had been "pricé" (a franglais verb that has almost certainly been outlawed by the Académie Française) - the likely effects on markets, currencies, jobs and politics in Britain, France and the EU in general. She handed out a little booklet that contained more hard economic facts and figures than any speech or article I've ever seen in the British press. The only trace of emotion came when she joked that she might have to make room in her office for new colleagues migrating to Paris from London if Britain's financial services industry shrank post-Brexit.

The floor (or breakfast table) was then handed over to me, and all I could do in the face of such detailed expertise was say that about half the British population would be unwillingly to listen to a word of it. This was because they're constantly being told that economic arguments are all scaremongering and verbal trickery, or - if they come from foreigners - meddling in Britain's affairs.

"So what you're saying is that a large proportion of the British population are letting themselves be ruled by pure emotion?" one of the guests asked me. "Whatever happened to the famous British phlegm?"

Luckily I knew that this was a reference to our legendary phlegmatic temperament rather than catarrh, so I answered that in my opinion British "phlegm" was a thing of the past. Even Winston Churchill was known to weep on occasions. And the referendum would, I predicted, be tipped one way or the other by fear - of either a poorer Britain post-Brexit or a tsunami of immigrants.

There were thoughtful nods around the room, and I thought I saw the economist mentally trying to "pricer l'émotion britannique". I'd love to get my hands on the next edition of her booklet, to see how much the good old British stiff upper lip used to be worth in terms of pounds, euros and jobs.

Stephen Clarke's latest novel is Merde in Europe, the story of an Englishman who goes to Brussels to work for an MEP and has to decide whether it's "better the devil you know" or "bring on the Brexit".