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French language notes - March 2019

Time to get fruity with these French phrases

Bonaparte was perhaps not at his most rousing when he reportedly said: “Il est dans le caractère français d’exagérer, de se plaindre et de tout défigurer dès qu’on est mécontent.” (“It is in the French character to exaggerate, complain and disfigure everything as soon as one is dissatisfied.”)

Far better for raising his troops’ morale, perhaps, would have been “Rien ne résiste un coeur vaillant” or “à cœur vaillant rien d’impossible” (“Nothing can resist a valiant heart” – the French equivalent of “Fortune favours the brave”.)

Another phrase that reflects a certain vigour for the task in hand, perhaps with a little naivety about what lies ahead, is: “Travailler la fleur au fusil” (“To go to work with a flower in your gun barrel”.
This phrase originated in a 1917 Jean Galtier-Boissière book that mentions soldiers heading towards the front line in the First World War, casually picking flowers and sticking them into their guns – in the belief that they were in fact just enjoying a casual exercise stroll.

A more blunt motivational idiom was famously once used by Nicolas Sarkozy on the campaign trail at Rungis food market. He talked of “a France that gets up early” (i.e hard-working) thus evoking the phrase “L’avenir appartient à ceux qui se lèvent tôt” (“The future belongs to those who rise early” or “The early bird catches the worm” as we would say).

And talking of working for the collective good, it is said to have been Lenin who reworked George Herbert’s 1640 phrase “To him that will, ways are not wanting” when he said: “Where there’s a will, there’s a way”, which is still commonly used in French as “Là où il y a une volonté, il y a un chemin.”

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