September 27, 2020

Facing ridicule, France changes title for its ‘minister for attractiveness’

Issued on: 09/07/2020 – 21:38Modified: 09/07/2020 – 21:39

After provoking mockery on social media with its new “minister for foreign trade and attractiveness”, the French government on Tuesday dropped the overly literal translation for the dossier tasked with luring more trade and investment to France.


President Emmanuel Macron’s cabinet reshuffle on Monday attracted much commentary, with many noting that the government had taken a conservative turn. Some critics accused him of making a power grab by ditching his centre-right Prime Minister Édouard Philippe – whose popularity had soared thanks to what many saw as his deft handling of the coronavirus crisis – for little-known civil servant Jean Castex. The shakeup was widely seen as Macron’s attempt to reinvent his presidency before facing re-election in 2022.

But Macron’s cabinet revamp brought commentary of another variety when the French foreign ministry’s Twitter account offered a list of its new cabinet positions into English, naming Franck Riester the new “minister for foreign trade and attractiveness”.

The Twitterverse was quick to respond. 

Politico reporter Zia Weiss tweeted: “only France could have a minister for attractiveness (but srsly: what)”. “‘Attractiveness’. International relations are going to get interesting …” one French joker replied to original tweet. “When you think your mastery of a foreign language is better than it is. Although [Riester] is, in fact, an attractive man,” another responded.

The Quai d’Orsay’s assertion that it had looked up the word on the Oxford English dictionary website did little to stem the mockery. The three definitions it gives are, “The quality of being pleasing or appealing to the senses,” “(in a person) the quality of being appealing or sexually alluring to look at” and “The possession of qualities or features that arouse interest.”

A French foreign ministry communiqué issued on Tuesday instead referred to Riester as the minister for trade and “appeal”. The next day, the Quai d’Orsay’s head of English-language communications said “economic attractiveness” would be the phrase to use.

But that works much better in the language of Molière than of Shakespeare. “Attractivité” can describe something that is economically attractive, as in the case of attracting investment, rather than good looks.

The ‘unsubmissive’ party

Each new French cabinet includes a raft of reworked ministerial titles, although some key dossiers – defence, culture, energy – remain largely the same. And attempts at understanding the new responsibilities often lead to confusion.  

A 2012 reshuffle under then president François Hollande gave us the “minister for sports, youth, popular education and community life”. One new cabinet member was “in charge of educational success” (but not to be confused with the “minister of higher education and research”) while another minister was responsible for “old people and dependence”.

Other problems arise when trying to communicate the happenings in French politics. It seems impossible to translate La France Insoumise – the name of the far-left party led by firebrand Jean-Luc Mélenchon – with a straight face. The Economist calls it “Unsubmissive France” and Politico came up with “France Untamed”. The New York Times writes “Rebellious France”. In its 2017 French presidential election coverage, FRANCE 24 called the party “Indomitable France” and later settled on “France Unbowed”. 

The name of the centrist party Macron founded for his insurgent run for the Élysée Palace – En Marche –  poses another translation challenge for the anglophone world. At the time, Macron’s PR people opted to translate En Marche! as “Onward!” although many Anglophone media translated it as, “On the move!”

Upon winning the presidential election in May 2017, he changed the party’s name to La République En Marche. Commonly translated as “The Republic on the Move”, Macron was apparently seeking to communicate that his party would propel the country forward with a can-do, go-getter attitude.