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Neil Herland: UN File

Is Ban Ki-moon a franco-phoney?

Dec. 14, 2006

Jacques Chirac is probably kicking himself.

The incoming secretary general of the United Nations can barely speak a word of French.

Once considered the main language of diplomacy, le français has lost its élan.

Just moments after Ban Ki-moon recited his oath of office to become the eighth secretary general in UN history, he read a carefully scripted speech that included three paragraphs in French. However, during his first news conference with the UN press corps afterwards, he could barely muster a 'pardon?'

In Canada we're familiar with the politics of language — our federal leaders must be bilingual or at least make a convincing effort to show they're trying. At the UN, the "linguipolitik" is even more pronounced.

The official languages of the UN are English, French, Spanish, Russian, Arabic and Chinese. But the main working languages of the UN have traditionally been English and French. In fact, France puts such importance behind its mother tongue that it will not support a candidate for secretary general who doesn't speak French.

Which brings us to Ban Ki-moon.

French government officials tell me that President Jacques Chirac only gave his nod to Ban when they learned he was taking French lessons. As a permanent member of the UN Security Council, France was one of five countries with the power to veto the selection of the new secretary general.

On the day of Ban's nomination as secretary general in October, I told the UN press office I planned to ask him a question in French at his news conference that afternoon.

As an employee of both the CBC and its sister French-language network Radio-Canada, I have the privilege of working in both of Canada's official languages. I dutifully wrote my name at the top of the sign-up list for journalists asking questions, but I never got the chance.

Blame it on bad luck or deliberate manipulation, but only English questions were permitted at the incoming secretary general's debut performance. I was determined not to let it happen again.

Over the last week I e-mailed and harangued the UN press office, demanding the chance to ask Ban a question in French on behalf of Radio-Canada following his swearing-in ceremony on Dec. 14.

My request caused considerable discussion behind the scenes. Several UN officials contacted me.

They all said they couldn't guarantee the incoming secretary general would respond to my question in French. One UN staffer told me one of Ban's advisers had insisted that questions in French be limited during his live news conference.

So what happened after the swearing in ceremony came as a surprise. The first question went as usual to the president of the United Nations Correspondents Association.

The second question went to me. I asked Ban why he thinks French should remain the second official working language of the United Nations. A challenging question for any politician, much less one that doesn't appear to understand French! Ban looked startled when I posed my question in French.

The UN provided a live interpreter, but he still struggled. He said he had trouble hearing me, even though I was seated in the front row of the news conference. I repeated the question and he mumbled an indecipherable reply in mangled French.

The UN employee moderating the news conference tried to explain the question. Ban, whose resumé proclaims he speaks English and French, responded in English.

This isn't a big story for English-speakers around the world.

But in la Francophonie, Ban Ki-moon's difficulty with French — when it's supposed to be the second language of the organization he now heads — is definitely a diplomatic faux pas.

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