When President Jacques Chirac stormed out of an EU summit last week, furious that a fellow Frenchman had spoken English, he may as well have been railing at the tide coming, EU newcomer states say.
Chirac is not a champion of English as Europe's lingua franca
Whether France likes it or not, the dominance of the English language has grown and continues to grow in the European Union, bolstered notably by the arrival of 10 mostly ex-communist countries to the bloc in 2004.
When a Latvian needs to speak to a Lithuanian, when a Pole wants to strike up a conversation with an Estonian, the tongue they will most likely choose is that of Shakespeare, not of Moliere.
The British EU presidency may be over, but its linguistic dominance continues
"French is very useful and sometimes necessary in Brussels," said Zbigniew Gniatkowski, a spokesman for the Polish embassy to the European Union. "But English is essential. There are many groups that work only in English."
Back home in Poland, "everyone wants to learn English," especially because of its association with music, US culture and the Internet, added 33-year-old Gniatkowski, who arrived in Brussels shortly after his country entered the EU.
Chirac shocked by use of E n glish
Chirac would like to hear more French in Europe
That sentiment is not shared by Chirac, who -- to the astonishment of officials and to the amusement of the British press -- abruptly walked out of an EU session Thursday, accusing the French head of Europe's employer union of piquing French pride by daring to speak English.
Chirac said he had been "deeply shocked" to hear English on the lips of the Frenchman in a speech at the two-day summit.
While Chirac's tantrum at the summit caused surprise, some interpret it as a sign of wider French frustration over loss of influence in the EU.
EU e n largeme n t dilutes Fre n ch clout
Her language seems more appealing than his
The arrival of 10 newcomers in the union just under two years ago is widely seen as having diluted Paris' clout and speeded up a shift in the bloc's center of balance which had already been underway or some years.
Even before they joined the EU their ties with Chirac were strained when the French leader told them they had "missed a good opportunity to shut up" over supporting the 2003 Iraq war.
And the more free-market inclinations of some of the newcomers have proved more in tune with the economic liberalism championed by Britain, rather than with the stance of the French.
Paris, London's traditional rival for power, has recently faced mounting accusations of economic protectionism.
Fre n ch disappeari n g from Brussels ?
Franco-British rivalry extends to the linguistic level in Brussels, where French speakers regularly complain that official documents increasingly appear in English and only later in French -- even though English, French and German are the working languages of the European Commission, the EU's executive arm.
EU meetings are increasingly held in English
"Previously there was more French used in official communication in Brussels," said Peteris Ustubs, a foreign affairs adviser to Latvian Prime Minister Aigars Kalvitis. "Now all the time I have the feeling that this is diminishing."
Illustrating the trend, statistics show that in 1997, 40 percent of European Commission documents were first drawn up in French before being translated, and 45 percent were originally drafted in English. By 2004, just 26 percent of documents were in French in their first form, and 62 percent in English.
But the French language does have its defenders among the new EU member states -- including Poland's French-born Foreign Minister Stefan Meller, a former ambassador to Paris.
"In terms of the new members of the EU, it is a flawed stereotype that they only speak English," Meller said. "I know at least several colleagues who very often speak in French."
Will the fall of French in Europe make French people even more anti-EU?
Latvian aide Ustubs, 36, speaks French and insisted that officials from the new EU member states can hold their own in the language of Moliere.
But "probably in the new member states, French is the second foreign language," he said. "English is likely to be the first foreign language."
For the French-language Belgian daily Le Soir, the lesson is clear. In the wake of the Chirac incident, the paper wrote Friday: "French no longer has a monopoly in Europe. Perhaps it's time to wake the president up?"