Kerry speaks French on the stump.

Dispatches from Campaign 2004.
Oct. 19 2004 3:24 PM

Kerry Speaks French

But does anyone know what he said?

ORLANDO—Let's see: Your opponent is characterizing you as an effete internationalist willing to "turn America's national security decisions over to international bodies or leaders of other countries." In particular, he suggests, in all seriousness, that you want to call up Jacques Chirac for permission before deploying the military. At the Republican National Convention, you were portrayed as a beret-wearing poodle named "Fifi Kerry." How should you defend yourself against these slanders?

By speaking French on the stump, of course. Click here to hear John Kerry's foray into the language of Paris during a Monday rally here. I wasn't watching Kerry on stage when he made his remarks, but from the context he appears to have seen someone from Haiti and decided to acknowledge the person in his or her native tongue.

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What does Kerry say? My knowledge of French is limited to the lyrics to "Lady Marmalade," so I consulted my friend John Wilkerson, a Washington journalist and French speaker. He translates the first part as, "You're Haitian? OK," but says the rest sounded like gibberish. "I think at that point he was just a character on Saturday Night Live," Wilkerson says.

Readers? Can anyone make it out? Post your explanations, serious or otherwise, in the Fray. Slug them "Kerry's French translation."

Scotland's Sunday Herald called Kerry's French fluency a "campaign secret" yesterday. Looks like the secret is out. Here's some suggested spin for the Kerry campaign: He wasn't speaking French. He was speaking Freedom.

Update, 10/19/04: According to the New York Times, Agence France-Presse, and bazillions of readers, Kerry said, "Je vais aider les Haitiens," which means, "I will help the Haitians." Sticklers say Kerry mispronounced both "Haiti" and "Haitians," which caused several people to think he said, "I will help the states." Canadians said they had the easiest time understanding Kerry, since they're used to listening to American-accented French.

Assessments of Kerry's accent ranged from "impeccable" to "good" to "mediocre" to "abominable" to "better than Bush's Texas-twinged Spanglish." One correspondent wrote, "It sounds more like, 'I'm going to help the Chechens!' "

My favorite fanciful translation: "I have a plan to learn French."

Chris Suellentrop is the deputy editor for blogs at Yahoo News and a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine. He has reviewed video games for Slate, Rolling Stone, and NewYorker.com. Follow him on Twitter.

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