February 23, 2008, then-president of the French republic, Nicolas Sarkozy, arrives at the Salon de l’Agriculture exhibition in the outskirts of Paris. Like any good politician, Mr Sakorzy is working the crowd, glad-handing in all directions and enjoying what the French call un bain de foule. As the following video clip shows, he comes upon an individual who does not like him and doesn’t want to shake his hand. Here is the little dialogue that ensues:
(1) – Ah non,touche-moi pas! Tu me salis. (Unidentified individual)(2) – Eh ben, casse-toi alors, pauv’ con! (Sarkozy)
Although sentence (2) is what Sarkozy actually says, in the controversy that followed, it is abbreviated to Casse-toi, pauv’ con. This is sometimes written Casse-toi, pov’ con.
The language controversy
The scene was filmed and quickly became a hit on the Internet. These four words ignited quite a controversy in the media and the French political class. For some people, and particularly Sarkozy’s political opponents, this was coarse and vulgar language that demonstrated a lack of class and dignity necessary for the position of president of the French republic. For others, this showed the president to be a real man who doesn’t accept crap from anybody. Teachers of French got upset because they felt the president was legitimizing the use of gutter language in the eyes of their students. There was even a court case that made its way to the European Court of Human Rights in 2013. Here is a Wikipédia entry about the subject.
Why the fuss over a bit of vernacular French?
Learners of French may wonder why people got so worked up over four little words. In fact, taken individually, none of these words are particularly controversial. But such is the power of language that in a certain context and with the right intonation, these same words become powerful tools of insult and provocation. This is what I want to explore in this post
Although most observers have concentrated on Sarkozy’s answer in sentence (2) above, we have to start with sentence (1) that provoked the president’s ire. The translation is pretty straightforward: ‘Don’t touch me. You’re dirtying me.’ But there are two technical remarks I want to make here. Firstly, the individual is using the TU form of the verbs toucher and salir. This form, as readers here know, is usually used when speaking with a child, a close friend or to put the interlocutor in some sort of inferior class or status. Normally, of course, one would use the VOUS verb form out of politeness and respect, especially with the president of the French republic, of all people in the world.
What we are seeing here, of course, is a not so subtle insult of Sarkozy. This must certainly have rankled Sarkozy who is known for being very sensitive about matters of status and his short height.
As an aside here, I want to emphasize here the importance of using the TU and VOUS forms properly. This is a huge problem for speakers of English because modern English has only the one YOU form and many people think that since TU and VOUS both mean YOU they are interchangeable. This is totally wrong. The issue is when to use TU and when to use VOUS.
The example at hand is a perfect illustration how the use of the TU form is particularly insulting to a person who would always be addressed with VOUS in this sort of context.
Secondly, I want to point out that the grammar used is a non-standard form of the negative imperative form with an object pronoun. In school French, this should have been: Ne me touche pas. (Think of the popular song Ne me quitte pas by the Belgian singer Jacques Brel).
These two grammatical features are typical of vernacular French, the variety of spoken French associated with lack of formal education and low social status. All of this certainly rubbed Sarkozy the wrong way. Most politicians carefully monitor their speech and know how to verbally wiggle their way out of any situation without losing face. For example, Sarkozy could have said, very sarcastically: Mais je vous en prie, cher monsieur or Avec grand plaisir. But instead he loses it and responds with a marvelous verbal put-down of his own that unfortunately comes across as very vulgar.
The presidential put-down: Casse-toi, pauv’ con
The translations into English of Sarkozy’s response range from the rather proper BBC’s:
Get lost then you bloody idiot, just get lost
to stronger forms like :
Then get lost, you poor joke
Get lost, you stupid bastard
And then there are some more vulgar translations such as :
Get loss, dickhead
Fuck off, you prick
A look at the language used
The casse-toi is the TU affirmative imperative form of the pronominal construction of the verb casser. The most common meaning of casser is ‘to break’. The pronominal construction se casser is usually used with an object, as in :
Il s’est cassé une jambe en faisant su ski.
He broke a leg while skiing.
L’entreprise s’est cassé la gueule.
The company went belly-up.
Je me suis cassé la tête pendant deux jours sans trouver la réponse.
I racked my brains for two days without finding the solution.
A good dictionary will also indicate that se casser used intransitively also means ‘to leave as quickly as possible’. Synonyms are : s’en aller, partir, se tailler, se barrer, foutre le camp, se tirer. This definition is nearly always accompanied by the register indicator familier or populaire meaning colloquial or vernacular.
The spelling of pauv’ is interesting. This is of course the adjective pauvre ‘poor’ but without the articulation of the final -re. This is very typical of vernacular French or slang. In rapid speech, the unstressed -e will tend to disappear at the end and even in the middle of words. On the other hand, the final -e will be often be stressed in songs and poetry for rhyming purposes.
The word pauvre is not particularly vulgar but here it serves to emphasize the following word, con.
The word le con started out with a very vulgar meaning and has now become very widely used as synonym of dumb, stupid, idiot. If you want to hear this word used a lot, look at my study of the first five minutes of the film Le dîner de cons. It also has common related forms like la conne, le connard, la connerie and the verb déconner.
When combined with the right intonation and spoken in the right context, these words take on a strong connotation of low-class speech and hence a very strong connotation of insult.
Why the controversy ?
None of this is really foul language per se. The real cause of the controversy is of course the sharp contrast between the position of high prestige and social class of the position of president of the French republic and the language that one is likely to hear in some poor area of Paris. Heads of state are not supposed to talk like this. At least not in public.
What happened to Sarkozy is similar to those incidents where politicians are caught off-guard and recorded speaking when they think no journalists or outside persons are listening. We see that they talk just like ordinary people and can use coarse language when they want to.
In fact, it’s very interesting to observe that all adult native speakers of French understand perfectly what Sakorzy said. Although many speakers, especially teachers, say that they never use this kind of language, in reality everybody is capable of using it and many will if push comes to shove.
Conclusion : watch your vernacular French
Although teachers will almost never touch vernacular French, if you spend any time in a French-speaking environment you will certainly encounter it. You will hear people cursing and expressing strong emotions. People will use coarse language when talking about parts of the body, people, sex, money and work. All of this stuff is very interesting and lots of fun. But, be careful! It is important to know when to use it and, more importantly, when not to.
Vernacular French is also where you will see the most differences between the regional varieties of French. The Quebec vernacular French that I have examined in previous posts is nearly incomprehensible for Europeans. Similarly, modern Parisian slang is impenetrable for speakers of Québécois French.
One thing that you have to get completely straight is the TU and VOUS distinction. It is very irritating and often insulting to use the TU form when VOUS is required. If you are picking up a lot of vocabulary just by hanging around native speakers whether they are in Paris, Marseille or Montreal, you would be well-advised to make sure how to use your new words properly.
Stanley Aléong is a polyglot, author, musician, language coach in French, English and Spanish, language workshop facilitator and organizer of French-English conversation meetups in Montreal, Canada. He likes to share his passion for languages and believes that anybody can learn to speak a foreign language well with the right methods and tools. He has also invented a cool visual learning tool called the Essential French Wall Chart Calendar. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.