Lysiane Gagnon

Three leaders, three accents

Special to The Globe and Mail

Listening to the leaders French debate, I was impressed by the remarkable command of French displayed by MM. Harper, Ignatieff and Layton.

How many countries have made the minority language equal to the majority language in their central institutions? There are many historical explanations for such a unique exploit. Still, this wouldn't have happened without the personal will of the political leaders - a will that is stronger than ever, even though the "separatist threat" is gone and they can't expect much from a province caught in the smothering embrace of the Bloc Québécois.

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This means that our federal party leaders strived to learn French not just for political reasons, but because it is the right thing to do - a matter of respect for the descendants of the people who were the first European founders of Canada.

Many Quebeckers take this for granted, as compensation for past sufferings and injustices. They shouldn't. Unfortunately, under the influence of the Bloc, Quebeckers are more inward-looking than ever. Not only do they not care about English Canada, the million French Canadians who live outside Quebec were hardly mentioned in the French debate.

There are many kinds of French and each of the three anglophone party leaders exemplifies a specific one.

Jack Layton was born in Hudson, near Montreal, and studied at McGill, at a time when French immersion classes were non-existent. He learned French mostly on the streets, through personal contact rather than by formal studies. His French is colloquial, and his syntax often faulty. His working-class accent sounds familiar, but it is very different from the mainstream accent that is considered the norm in French Canada - this standard being represented, for instance, by the news anchors of Société Radio-Canada.

Stephen Harper's excellent French - it has improved a great deal since his first years as Conservative Leader - is close to the SRC norm. Mr. Harper's merit is especially great since, in contrast to Mr. Layton, he was never exposed to French as a kid, and, in contrast to Michael Ignatieff, he didn't come from a cosmopolitan family. Born in Ontario, he was educated in Alberta, miles away from a French-speaking society. He was in his late thirties before he started learning French - a tough challenge, since the older you get, the harder it is to master a second language.

Mr. Harper worked at it relentlessly, going through immersion programs in Jonquière, a town where it's virtually impossible to order a salad in English. He now speaks French easily, with a standard Quebec accent, and his syntax is flawless.

Mr. Ignatieff's French is of another sort. Raised in a family of diplomats, he certainly was exposed to French as a child. He studied at Oxford and was a fellow at Cambridge - two universities where a cultured person, at least in those years, was expected to know French. Mr. Ignatieff also spent time in France, which gave him a wonderful opportunity to polish his French.

His French, clear and elegant, sounds like the French spoken by European diplomats and academics as a second language. Those who haven't travelled further than Florida will think that Mr. Ignatieff speaks "like a Parisian" - which is totally false. Nobody in France would mistake him for a French person. Although he pronounces his vowels and his "R" " à la française," Mr. Ignatieff still has a distinct English accent when he speaks French - which is perfectly normal and adds a charming exotic note. Still, some Quebeckers might find Mr. Ignatieff's brand of French slightly intimidating.