“Bugging” the unvaccinated, giving the finger to a woman, wanting to “bring out “le kärcher” from the basement”, claiming that the President has “burnt the till” … During the last few weeks, several candidates – whether declared or still ambiguous – to the upcoming French presidential election have shocked with their brash outflows and aggressive gestures. The opposition has seized this opened opportunity to severely criticise the Head of State after his interview with “Le Parisien”. No one is fooled: the phrase has nothing to do with an uncontrolled slip. It is openly a political strategy to divide and arouse the adherence of the vast majority of vaccinated citizens, whom he banks on to think the same. And so much the worse if Emmanuel Macron thus forgets his declarations of early December on TF1 and LCI on the evil of small shock phrases that divide and stigmatise, especially when they arise from the President.
The quest for shocking phrases at the price of some liberty with the academic language is nothing new: one still has in mind the famous “get the fuck out of here!” uttered by Nicolas Sarkozy almost fourteen years ago or the historical “yes to reform, no to chienlit” from De Gaulle in May 1968. Experts in linguistics and rhetoric analyse the multiplication of these deviations as a desire for political figures to bring their speech closer to everyday language. Vulgarity would break the disconnection of political representatives with the people: by speaking ‘truthfully’ or in a ‘blunt’ manner, one would suddenly become more audible. This theory has already been tried and tested in the French rap scene, where ‘sometimes you have to speak crudely to be believed’, as Mathias Vicherat explained in his essay ‘For a text analysis of French rap”.
Vulgarity as a marker for our era
In a book published in 2019, essayist Bertrand Buffon explained that vulgarity, which is omnipresent nowadays, is a product of modernity for at least three reasons.
Shocking people is a way of attracting attention, at a time in contemporary history when citizens’ disinterest in politics has never been so profound. In this battle for attention, the media is spurred to put forward divisive speeches that offend, at the expense of reasonable ideas and polite, sanitised or overly constructed speeches. Better a shocking formula, or “punch line” in the language of communicators, than a well-founded reasoning!
This is also a consequence of the digitalisation of practices, which has imposed itself in our daily lives over the last ten years. This revolution has had a considerable impact on the way we express ourselves, by introducing a mutable vocabulary, syntax and grammar. As a result, public opinion has new expectations when it comes to public debate: simplified ideas, more spontaneity, a battle of words rather than a battle of ideas.
Finally, another explanation would be the alignment of the level of political discourse with increasingly categorical positions among the population, at a time when one can only notice a strong radicalisation of opinions. If the ideas are trenchant, they can be formulated in more incisively.
Regarding what seems like an unavoidable evolution, should we therefore accept that the next few months will be peppered with comments of this kind? Should the presidential campaign, which allows the French to choose not only their leader but also a political programme for the next five years, be reduced to a battle of petty phrases ? Or should it leave room for a real debate on the fundamental steerings ? The answer lies at least as much with the candidates as with the French themselves and in the interest they will display (or not) in the solutions offered by the first. We can criticise politicians and the media, but they are largely reflecting citizens’ expectations.