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Next U.N. secretary-general flunks first French test with U.N. press corps

UNITED NATIONS: Ban Ki-moon passed a crucial test in Paris last month, a French-only lunch with President Jacques Chirac. But the next U.N. secretary-general flunked his first French test with the U.N. press corps.

France has required all U.N. secretary-generals to speak French, and the former South Korean foreign minister, who takes over from Kofi Annan as secretary-general on Jan. 1, has been plugging away at French lessons.

But when he got asked a question — in French — at a press conference Thursday after being sworn in, Ban got flustered saying he couldn't follow the question because a U.N. interpreter was translating it into English over a loudspeaker.

"If you could speak lentment (slowly) in French, I will do my best, but it is very difficult for me, off the cuff, to reply in French," Ban told the Canadian reporter.

The interpreter then repeated the question — should French remain the second language of the U.N. along with English — but Ban complained he could not hear well.

The head of the U.N.'s news and media division who was running the press conference, Ahmad Fawzi, then repeated the question.

Ban answered in English that member states decided to have six official languages — English, French, Spanish, Russian, Chinese and Arabic — and to use English and French during informal and semi-official proceedings.

The South Korean foreign minister's meeting with Chirac last month was the first with such a rigorous language requirement, though they had met before.

After the press conference, Ban did an interview for French television and his staff said he answered two questions in French without any problem.

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