Translators lost for words during French presidential debate

Rare and obscure phrases used by Emmanuel Macron had translators reaching for the dictionary

Translators lost for words during French presidential debate

Marine Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron pictured during the live brodcast face-to-face televised debate in television studios of French public national television channel France 2 [Pool/ABACA/ABACA/PA Images]

Last night’s presidential debate between the National Front’s Marine Le Pen and En Marche!’s Emmanuel Macron was marked by hours of testy rhetoric, as well as testing vocabulary.

Translators trying to keep up for Anglophone audiences found themselves at a lexical loss by a very idiomatic turn of phrase offered by Macron while discussing Schengen and border control.

The 39-year-old candidate, who has never contested an election before making it to Sunday’s runoff, attacked his opponent’s claims that her presidency would see France’s borders become more robust and protect the country from terrorism.

Other countries not part of the free-movement agreement “have been struck, in the same way as us, by acts of terrorism,” Macron told Le Pen. “What you are proposing, it’s de la poudre de perlimpinpin...” he retorted, to the immediate dismay of interpreters trying to get a handle on his unusual turn of phrase.

The phrase translates into English best as ‘snake oil’, and is a reference to the diverse powders once sold by hucksters and charlatans as cure-alls for every malady. The word was first recorded by lexicographer Joseph-Philibert Le Roux in his 1750 Dictionary of the Comic, Satiric, Critical, Burlesque, Common and Proverbial.

Perlimpinpin powder was not the only word used by Macron that had translators left scratching their heads.

Known throughout the campaign for employing very particular vocabulary, Macron referred to his opponent’s response to a question about Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin as a galimatias. The word translates as gibberish or mumbo jumbo, but also had non-natives left lost for words.

Despite delighting fans of obscure words and winning in the opinion polls about the debate, the television broadcast was widely criticised in France as a bitter and undignified spectacle.

Marine Le Pen, who would become France’s first female president, was accused by Le Monde of telling false facts 19 times during the two-and-a-half-hour debate. Former Prime Minister Alain Juppé described her as messy, aggressive, and sarcastic, while even her father – who she infamously ousted from National Front in bitter power grab – said she wasn’t good enough.

Leaving the studio after the debate, Le Pen accused her opponent of acting aggressively throughout the evening and for lowering the tone by launching personal attacks against her.

“I’m used to being badly treated and insulted,” she said, adding she was going to toast her victory with a glass of champagne with her supporters.

As for the voters, most pundits argued that the debate was unlikely to shake up Sunday’s result, with most minds already believed to be made up. Macron leads by 20 points, with most of the French political classes coming together to see the hard-right National Front quashed, and even former US President Barack Obama endorsing the En Marche! candidate.

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