Talk of War

Talk of War: Worried Leaders Walk a Tightrope

Last week French President Emmanuel Macron gave a two-hour speech, warning that Europe must wake up to the risk of war. It was clear he wanted to make headlines across the continent.

At the Media Coach, we often suggest using metaphor to make an argument more powerful and more quotable. Often non-native speakers say ‘We cannot do that in English’. I suggest they choose relevant metaphors from their own language and see if they work. Many do, some don’t. President Macron picked a few that worked just fine.



If you prefer to read the speech in English it can be found here.  (It seems to me that the written version is a more accurate translation than the simultaneous interpretation.)

In this speech, Macron used several elegant French metaphors that sounded slightly off in English, but nevertheless, the message was crystal clear. For example, the BBC translated one key passage in the following way.

“We need to be lucid, and recognise that our Europe is mortal. It can die. It all depends on the choices we make, and those choices need to be made now.” (timecode 15’ 34”).

Macron also spoke of a ‘change of paradigm’ facing the world. We might have called it a paradigm shift but we certainly understood what he meant. (timecode 24.21)

Another key quote from the speech is translated as: “The era when the EU bought its energy and fertiliser from Russia, outsourced its production to China and depended on the US for its security – that era is over.” (18:38)

For Media Coach trainees who have listened to Eric, Catherine and myself explain a number of ways to craft a quote: this is one of those often mentioned ‘tricolons’.  A tricolon is a rhetorical term for a series of three parallel words, phrases or clauses. It is much loved by speech writers.

Macron has not been the only European leader sounding the alarm.

At the end of March, the Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk warned that Europe was in a “pre-war era”.

Talk of War

Donald Tusk, Prime Minister of Poland

He added: “We are living in the most critical moment since the end of the Second World War.”

In early April the EU’s top diplomat Josep Borrell (a veteran Spanish politician) warned a full-scale conflict on the continent was “no longer a fantasy”. Undiplomatic language from someone who, we might conclude, wanted to be heard.

And of course, the British Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, has announced a big increase in defence spending. While speaking in Poland last week, he too claimed Europe was at a “turning point” in the face of the growing threats from Russia, Iran and China. He went on to warn: “An axis of autocratic states like Russia, Iran and China are increasingly working together to undermine democracies and reshape the world order”. There’s another tricolon with unmistakable overtones of George W. Bush’s ‘axis of evil’. )

As a keen observer of the work of speech writers and spin doctors, I can see experienced professionals at work behind all these warnings. I cannot but note that these people normally weigh their words. They are not politicians of the Boris Johnson, Silvio Berlusconi and Donald Trump chaotic school of rhetoric.

These speakers, and their speech writers, are walking a tightrope. They want to sound the alarm without creating panic, be robust without warmongering.

We should conclude they are seriously worried.

Like most of my readers, war is an alien concept from history, not something we expect to see in our lifetime. It is easy to be blasé and believe this too will pass.

I hope for the best but fear the worst.


Emmanuel Macron, YouTube
Donald Tusk, flickr Creative Commons license CC-BY-4.0 Credited CC-BY-4.0 © European Union 2019 – Source EP


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