La politique: French political vocabulary in English
The French presidential election has brought French politics into the limelight; but it’s worth remembering that, even in English, the language of politics is full of words with a French connection. And this applies not only to the vocabulary of specifically French politics—words such as Gaullism and Mitterrandism, for example, referring to the ideas or policies associated with particular politicians—but also to more general terms. Poujadism, for example, may originally have been used (like its French antecedent poujadisme) to refer to the right-wing populism of Pierre Poujade in 1955, but it has now come to be used more generally of any populist movement which similarly aims to appeal to the interests of small businesses. And the rather more familiar communism (or rather communisme) appears to have been coined independently by three different Frenchmen in 1840—whereupon it was immediately borrowed into English.
But of course politics is about more than isms. France has also given us groupuscule—usually meaning a radical or extremist splinter group, and first used as an English word to refer to left-wing groups in 1960s France—and the slightly older word relance, meaning a political revival or relaunch. A phrase from another period of French politics, namely the political scandal of just over a century ago that became known as l’affaire Dreyfus, is j’accuse—literally ‘I accuse’, and made famous when Émile Zola used it as the title of his open letter to the President of France in 1898 condemning the imprisonment of Alfred Dreyfus. (Dreyfus’s supporters became known as Dreyfusards, another word which entered English political discourse.) J’accuse is now widely used in English, despite its evident French origins, with reference to any public accusation or denunciation.
More fundamentally, our use of left and right to refer to the opposing ends (from one perspective at least) of the political spectrum also has a French origin. One widely accepted version of the story has it that in 1789, at a meeting of the Estates General—the great deliberative assembly of the three ‘estates’ of France, namely the clergy, the nobility, and the common people—the first two estates were seated to the right of the presiding member’s chair, and the third estate to the left. A similar disposition of parties occurred at a meeting of the new National Assembly later that year, at which the supporters of the ancien régime were grouped on the right—le côté droit, the right wing or side—while their opponents made up le côté gauche. Within a very short time right and left became shorthand for these two political positions, a distinction which continues to this day.
Even the political associations of the colour red have a French origin: the radicals of the Revolution were known as bonnets rouges because of their red caps (in fact both redcap and bonnet rouge have been used in English to refer to this), and the use of the English adjective red to mean ‘revolutionary’ or ‘republican’ can be traced back to the time of a later French revolution, the so-called ‘February Revolution’ of 1848. (The specific association of red with socialism and communism came later.) Blue, by contrast, started its political life in Britain, and somewhat earlier: our earliest evidence of blue being applied to a political party comes from a political pamphlet published in Bristol in 1781.