Fractured French

ANY tourist who has fractured French knows the special distress that can come over the face of a native. But there may be one linguistic crime even more offensive to French ears - Franglais, the mixing in of English terms (or worse, Americanisms) that pollutes the pure musical stream of the French language.

The French passed a law to block the ``invasion of barbaric words,'' as a member of the Academie Francais phrased it. It made it a punishable act for anybody in broadcasting or advertising or maybe even politics to stoop to the corruptions of Franglais.

Alas, the mot juste ran smack into that other French ideal - liberte. France's Constitutional Council recently ruled that the pure-language law encroached on ``the fundamental liberty of thought and expression'' guaranteed by the constitution.

Government officials must still maintain the purity of the language. But now broadcasters can refer again to a ``video clip.'' Basketball announcers can cheer a ``corner shot'' instead of being confined to jet de coin. And in ads a cheeseburger will stay a ``cheeseburger.'' Forget the fromage.

Even in retreat the French show their style. The Constitutional Council, gracefully accepting the inevitable, noted: ``The French language, like any living language, evolves.''

The world needs the passion for high standards - for civilization - exemplified by the French. Purists always run the risk of looking absurd. But there is more than an elitist gesture to this Gallic determination to protect the integrity of words at a time when words in all languages are too often manipulated without respect.

Meanwhile, if the battle of the cheeseburger has been conceded, the battle of the baguette has not. The French fight for good taste - literally - is being fought on more than one front. Not long ago Prime Minister Edouard Balladur issued a decree that homemade bread should be distinguished from mass-produced bread, which features frozen dough and other short-cut techniques. A nation fond of medal-pinning and prize-awarding now honors with a tricolor sticker the traditional baguette, handcrafted from fresh ingredients.

For gallantry in the endless war against cultural attrition, the French themselves deserve a red, white, and blue ribbon on the lapel. But if any Americans are tempted to issue such an award, perhaps they should try to word it in Esperanto and skip, for once, the fractured French.

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