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Our numerous Federal politicians’ French-language train wreck (#360)

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(Post-debate addendum added at the bottom of this post with my thoughts after having watched the debate on 24 September).

Tonight is the first of the French-language television debates for Federal party leaders (the second one will be on October 2nd).

For the first time in this election campaign, it will involve all five party leaders:

  • Prime MInister Stephen Harper
  • Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau
  • NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair
  • Green Leader Elizabeth May
  • Bloc Québécois Leader Gilles Duceppe

I do not believe it is a stretch to say that many Anglophone Canadians are not aware how our Federal politicians sound in French.

I for one can tell you that some of them will not fare well in this evening’s French-language debate, simply owing to their poor mastery of French.

The Montreal Gazette recently published an English-language article which asked one French language expert, and one political science expert to give their impressions of the leader’s levels of French, and how that may play in their favour, or to their detriment during both French-language debates.

I’ll provide the link to the article below.  But first, before you read the article, I’ll be a little more blunt and direct in my own assessment of how I view our political leaders’ level of French.

(1) Prime Minister Stephen Harper

  • His French sounds broken with a very heavy English accent.
  • You’d get the impression his vocabulary consists of 200 to 300 words, used over and over and over and over again.
  • On top of that, you’d think that he only knows the same 30 sentences, which again, he uses over and over and over.
  • He sounds like a robot (or a broken record) with inflections in the wrong places (imagine him using a robot-voice to say “Trust-me-I-am-the-person-you-should-trust-I-will-give-you-tax-breaks-so-you-should-vote-for-my-party-and-for-me-because-my-platform-says-we-reduced-taxes-by-X-amount-in-X-number-of-years.. … … ).
  • Linguistically, he’s never been able to forge personal connections with the public via the media.  It’s human nature that you vote for people who connect with you, and he doesn’t.  The polls show the same thing.  Thus, any votes he will get from Francophones will likely be votes for his party or platform, but not for the person.
  • Do you remember Jean Chrétien’s English and how people used to laugh and make jokes about it?  Bluntly put, Stephen Harper’s is worse.
  • All-in-all:  Tough to take him seriously when he has a tough time explaining complex subjects of national or global importance to you any better than a 6 year old could.

(2) Justin Trudeau

  • If Oxford English had a haughty Canadian French equivalent, that would be Trudeau’s French.  Furthermore, linguistically, he just can’t seem to be able to drop it and come down to earth – to “our” level.
  • He chops it up with a weird accent, as if there’s a tinge of an English background with an English accent.  That’s not something to hold against him, but it plays against the “high-level” French he’s speaking with.  It makes you wonder where his French comes from (since people generally don’t speak like this on a day-to-day basis).  I read his autobiography, and I can tell you where it comes from:  In his book he admits himself that he did not attend grade-school with other Francophones in Ottawa (he attended and played mostly with Anglophone kids in French Immersion).  He said when he moved to Montréal later in life, he felt linguistically lost to such an extent that he could not understand common expression or slang.   Thus this begs an answer to the question of how can you relate (or appear to relate) to others if you cannot communicate like them?
  • All-in-all:  His language disconnect (not speaking like the common man or woman) makes him sound distant from the common person.  You feel he’s an outsider… which has the effect of reducing your confidence in him (and his credibility).  His measures to try to convince you otherwise (like getting a haircut and rolling up his sleeves) therefore come across as a show, an act, and insincere.   In politics, coming across as linguistically haughty and “above others” (as if talking down to others) is not good.  That’s perhaps not the message I think he wants to portray, but that is how he comes across.

(3) Thomas Mulcair

  • He speaks excellent, fluent French, depite what I perceive as a medium-level English accent.
  • In the Montréal Gazette article, one expert says he has just a tinge of an English accent, whereas the other expert says his accent is a Montréal accent — I disagree with both of them.  He has more than a “tinge” of an English accent, and it has nothing to do with Montréal.
  • All-in-all:  With that being said, his command of vocabulary, tone, speed, and whit is excellent.  He has no problems communicating.  If he were to lose the English accent, unlike Trudeau and Harper, he would not have to adjust his vocabulary, expressions, manner of speaking or anything else – he’s got it down pat.   He speaks well enough to make a connection with Francophone voters and to gain their trust (and the polls prove this).

(4) Elizabeth May

  • I’ll start with the nice, and I’ll finish with the mean.
  • Nice:  For someone who grew up in a completely Anglophone environment in Nova Scotia, and who has lived much of her adult life on Vancouver Island, I say koodos to her for gaining as broad a vocabulary as she has.  She’s further along than many others with her background.
  • Mean:  Nonetheless, from a French-language standpoint, vis-a-vis being able to hold up herself up in a debate, she’s an absolute train wreck.   My four year old nephew could probably do as well as her in the debate.
  • With that said, her comprehension is probably as good as a 15 year-old, allowing her to understand almost everything that is said.  But it sounds like a disaster when you use a four year old’s vocabulary to answer adult questions
  • Here’s another jab at it … just to drive the point home:  Question:  Elizabeth May, what do you think of Harper’s recent policy announcements made in 2015.  Answer:  Harper bad bad no nice man, so you no no vote he.  You vote me!  Okie?  You me like? Yes, we like.  Yes you vote me and we clean environment, It be clean clean good Earth!  With me Prime Minister is now Canada good place!  Vote!  Green is pretty.  Colour good.  Vote!)

(5) Gilles Duceppe:

  • He’s Francophone, and he can linguistically can make himself sound like he can relate to anyone.
  • Language level earns trust (you trust people who sound like you).  Thus polls show him as one of the most trusted people in Québec.  It’s just his party which people don’t trust (that can be a problem, and Elizabeth May may even get more votes than him.   So … bye bye Gilles).


Here is the English-language Montréal Gazette article I mentioned above (with video examples):


If you wish to subject yourself to this linguistic plane crash of epic proportions (just for the kicks if for nothing else), you can watch it nationally across Canada tonight at 8pm on Radio-Canada.

Here is a Radio-Canada run-up article for what I am sure will sound like children trying to fight with adults (that’s what happens when you run for national politics when your language skills are less than fluent).  http://ici.radio-canada.ca/sujet/elections-canada-2015/2015/09/24/003-debat-chefs-francais.shtml

Last word:  Even if you have a credible plan, it will all go to schnoot and you will crash and burn if your language skills do not allow you to make that badly needed connection.

And one more last word…  One of the hosts of the debates tonight will be Anne-Marie Dusseault (the host of RDI television’s political opinion show 26/60).

After following her show for many years, I believe she is one of Radio-Canada’s most visibly biased opinion makers.

Her facial expressions say it all, even if her words don’t… Show her a picture of Harper or Trudeau = disgusted frown like she just ate a lemon… Show her a picture of Gilles Duceppe or Mulcair  = smile of orgasmic proportions.

(Coincidentally, when she hosted the live broadcast of PKP’s coronation of the Parti Québécois, you almost had the impression you were watching her win the lottery!)

Needless to say, those in tonight’s debate who already are plagued with language “issues” will also have Dusseault to contend with.   It should be entertaining.  Enjoy!!

Sigh x 5


The debate just finished and a few of us just watched it.

A couple of things stood out…

  1. This seemed to be one of the more “tame” French-language debates of the last few election cycles (likely because of past debates had greater numbers of participants with higher language competencies)。
  2. Elizabeth May’s French (and confidence in speaking French) has visibly progressed.  Her grammar, speed, and vocabulary was much better than past events which tested her language skills to the limits.  It’s evident she has made strides.  Her competency still was at lower level than other participants, but she managed to get in several well-worded jabs, closed argument gaps which others left open, and considering her polling numbers, she certainly occupied her fair share (even more than her fair share) of the debate.

As for the others, really nothing different than what I mentioned above (both Harper and Trudeau appeared more hesitant than I expected them to be… I don’t know if that was because of language, or because of… well… the way they are).

Winners on who did the best with the language skills they have (which is different than political winners)?  I have two picks:

  1. Muclair (for his ease of language and being able to stay on top of all the questions), and
  2. Elizabeth May (because her language skills required her to stay on topic, and she actually did, more so than others)

But don’t read anything political into that.  I am still not telling you who I’m voting for 😉



  1. Andrew says:


    Really liked this post. Will see how much I agree with it, of course, after tonight.

    But I thought the point about Harper could also apply to his English in terms of stock phrases and vocab.

    happy watching,

    Andrew >


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