French president Emmanuel Macron is reported in this week’s Canard Enchaîné – the French equivalent to Private Eye – to have called Boris Johnson a ‘gougnafier’.
Gougnafier is an intriguing term with many linguistic roots. It is a nightmarish word to translate. Can you find one word in English to convey someone both rude and useless? That is what gougnafier means. A gougnafier is a boor. A cock-up artist. Someone vulgar. Someone lacking manners. This wasn’t merely a drive-by insult. It was a carefully judged expression of contempt.
What does this presidential insult say about the degradation of the Anglo-French relationship to Cold War?
It’s easy to dismiss this as another chapter of Macron’s tantrum diplomacy, to which the only dignified response might be to call his latest intervention unhelpful. Or perhaps not. Macron is showing an almost Johnsonian rhetorical skill. His characterisation of the Prime Minister has set a high semantic bar for a return of service by Johnson.
The Times this morning offers the translation ‘knucklehead’, which does not do justice to the layered contempt contained in Macron’s chosen insult. Macron also called the PM ‘un clown’, for those unable to grasp the subtlety of gougnafier.
Doubtless British and French journalists will have huge fun with this – and that’s the point. We’ve already heard it suggested that some nameless British ministers think Macron is on the verge of a nervous breakdown. But the unverified nature of this slur has limited its circulation. Meanwhile, the Elysée has not denied the words attributed to the president in Canard Enchaîné.
Make the bugger deny it was the philosophy of Lyndon B Johnson. Sure enough, up pops science minister George Freeman, predictably describing Macron’s words as ‘unhelpful’ but adding, for the avoidance of doubt: ‘Of course the prime minister isn’t a clown.’ He appears to have swerved on gougnafier. Fogeys might splutter that such rudeness is beneath statesmen, but it actually has a rich history and, in the social media age, an added force. Macron, in other words, is an elite-level troll.
Thirty-five years ago, during UK rebate talks, French president Jacques Chirac called prime minister Margaret Thatcher a ‘mégère’ which was mistranslated by British journalists who thought he’d said ménagère.
The full quote subsequently conveyed in the British media and into history was: ‘What more does this British housewife want from me?’ He went on to ask: ‘My balls on a platter?’
That’s not what he meant. He didn’t accuse her of being a housewife, but as a cantankerous, nasty, vicious shrew and his reference was to Shakespeare: La mégère apprivoisée. The Taming of the Shrew.
In the long sweep of Anglo-French relations, the instant war of words may be forgotten before Agincourt, Trafalgar and Waterloo but at least it has introduced an interesting new French insult to anglophone students of francophonie. For this, at least, we ought to show some appreciation to Emmanuel Macron. What can Boris say in reply?