"Faux-cul" and "vraie vulve"

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Outsiders to American politics are probably somewhat puzzled by the narrative background of the Chris Christie PAC acronym story. I mean, LMFAO, fine, but what's a PAC? and who's Chris Christie? And why did American Bridge think it was funny to turn "Party Rock Anthem" into "Traffic Block Anthem"?

All obvious to us here in the U.S., but probably mystifying to most people elsewhere in the world.

Since I'm planning to spend some time in France this summer, I've been dusting off my high-school French by reading French-language news media, and I've been similarly puzzled by some of the stories,  like "'Faux-cul', 'vraie vulve': Jean-Marie Le Pen insulte Claude Bartolone", Paris Match 1/31/2015, and "Jean-Marie Le Pen s'en prend violemment à Claude Bartolone, qu'il insulte de 'faux-cul' et de 'vraie vulve'", Le Huffington Post 1/31/2015.

To start with, I had to learn some new words, or rather some new usages.

I knew that "faux-cul" literally means "false ass", but why is it an insult? Apparently this phrase was used in French for what in English was called a bustle, a "framework used to expand the fullness or support the drapery of the back of a woman's dress". The French phrase then apparently picked up the extended meaning of "hypocrite" — unless this was an independent development?

And I knew that "vulve" is cognate with "vulva", but I wasn't aware that calling someone a "real vulva" is an insult, though this is plausible given the history of con.  Or perhaps Jean-Marie Le Pen was being creative?

I knew that the "Front national" ("National Front") is what Wikipedia calls "an economically protectionist, socially conservative, and nationalist political party". I guess the closest American counterpart would be the "Tea Party".  And I knew that Jean-Marie Le Pen was the National Front's leader until recently (from 1972 to 2011, according to Wikipedia).

But I didn't know that Steeve Briois is vice-president of the National Front, and the mayor of a town in the north of France called Hénin-Beaumont. Nor did I know that he was named "local elected official of the year" by a publication with the improbable name of Trombinoscope.

And I didn't know that Claude Bartolone is the president of the National Assembly, and a member of the Socialist party. He apparently chose not to attend the ceremony at which the prize was awarded to Briois, thereby provoking Jean-Marie Le Pen into this exchange on his video "journal de bord" (= "log book"):

The insults themselves:

M. Bartolone est un menteur, mais je crois 
pouvoir dire de lui que c'est un faux-cul
et que (pour respecter quand meme la parité) c'est une vraie vulve.

Mr. Bartolone is a liar, but I think
I can say of him that he's a [false-ass]
and that (maintaining equality) he's a real [vulva].

The interviewer laughs and says that the description is "tres imagé" (= "very evocative"):

Is this like one American politician calling another "an asshole" and "a real cunt"?  In private, sure, but we haven't gotten to the point where even retired politicians talk this way in television interviews. And socially conservative right-wing politicians are the least likely to do so, as Mike Huckabee and Megyn Kelly reminded us last week.


  1. Fr. said,

    February 1, 2015 @ 9:30 am

    > Is this like one American politician calling another "an asshole" and "a real cunt"?

    Not exactly, because "vraie vulve" is not a conventional insult. That's JMLP's way of making fun of gender parity (hence the ironic part in brackets).

    Wikipedia has a few more insults with the same meaning: "jésuite", "faux-derche", "faux-jeton" (pronounced foch'ton), "entubeur", "bluffeur".

  2. FM said,

    February 1, 2015 @ 11:10 am

    I knew that "faux-cul" literally means "false ass", but why is it an insult? Apparently this phrase was used in French for what in English was called a bustle, a "framework used to expand the fullness or support the drapery of the back of a woman's dress". The French phrase then apparently picked up the extended meaning of "hypocrite" — unless this was an independent development?

    Even while knowing the bustle meaning of faux-cul, I'd always assumed its use as an insult was derived from faux-jeton, with cul substituted for jeton for expressive purposes, as very often happens with all manner of swearwords.

    In private, sure, but we haven't gotten to the point where even retired politicians talk this way in television interviews.

    This kind of language is certainly not usual in television interviews in France either, but Jean-Marie Le Pen has always been known for his use of strong language and provocative discourse, sometimes resulting in legal action against him.

    P.S. The term trombinoscope, dated 1873 by Le Petit Robert is rather frequent in companies, schools and other institutions which keep a photo directory of their members. Its improbable etymology derives from trombine, a colloquial word for English face (somewhat equivalent to mug).

    [(myl) So trombinoscope basically means "facebook"!]

  3. David Marjanović said,

    February 1, 2015 @ 2:46 pm

    …Considering that previous thread, which is now closed… con is now in quite common use as an adjective, meaning "stupid"; you say mais qu'est-ce qu'il est con to complain about the computer, chuis* con to complain about yourself, and so on. My point here is that it this adjective has a feminine form, conne, the existence of which is etymologically absurd; evidently, the etymology has been completely forgotten as far as general usage is concerned. I've heard chuis conne said out loud; it wouldn't be considered generally printable, but neither is "I'm such a moron". I have not (in this century) heard con applied to a woman, by herself or others.

    * je suis, but (to simplify somewhat) nobody in Paris pronounces e anymore…

    That's JMLP's way of making fun of gender parity

    which, in turn, is a major thorn in the side of extreme-right parties all over Europe.

    [(myl) And in the Americas and Asia as well. I'm not sure about sub-Saharan Africa, because I'm not sure what counts there as an "extreme-right" party. Boko Haram?]

  4. Judith Strauser said,

    February 1, 2015 @ 4:34 pm

    Fr. above has it right, it's not a conventional insult, but although I wouldn't say it's like saying he's a "real cunt", I'd say that it implies he's a "real pussy" – so, he's a hypocrite (faux-cul) and a … who knows what, but it's bad bc womanly stuff/bits/qualities always are (creatively and misogynistically implied). It pokes "fun" at the very idea of gender equality / those who fight for it, while reinforcing inequality by using women attributes to shame a man. (Typical)

    I have no serious notion of the origin of faux-cul used for the meaning of hypocrite, but since a it originally is a bustle, literally a fake derrière, I don't think we need to go through faux-jeton to get to the concept of a two-faced/lying person. From wearing a bustle, i.e. "lying" about your ass to being a hypocrite, the semantic path is rather short, no?

  5. Keith said,

    February 1, 2015 @ 5:14 pm

    He's making fun of gender parity, yes, by making use of grammatical gender in French nouns.

    A more usual way of mocking would have been to call Bartolone a "faux cul" and "vrai con". In that construction, he would have made a contrast between "faux" and "vrai" (between "false" and "true") and between "cul" and "con" ("arse" and "cunt"). This word "con" is used as an insult towards a man (a woman can be called "conne"), and in both cases means "stupid".

    I seem to remember that when Yitzhak Rabin was killed in 1995, there was a cartoon that made a similar pun, that "Rabin a été un faucon, mais ses meurtiers en sont des vrais". Untranslatable in English, since it plays on "faucon" ("hawk") being a homonym for "faux con", and "en" as a pronoun standing for "des cons": expanding "en sont des vrais" we get "sont des vrais cons".

    At around 5m10, Le Pen makes a reference to Claude Bartolone's reason for not being present at the ceremony as being that Le Pen, more than 25 years ago (Le Pen's words) "[a] traité tout cela de détails", meaning "dismissed all that as details". Le Pen goes on the maintain that he doesn't know what Bartolone was talking about. But my memory has been proven correct by Googling a bit: Le Pen provoked some outrage when on 13 September 1987, on RTL (a radio station), he said "Je n'ai pas étudié spécialement la question, mais je crois que c'est un point de détail de l'histoire de la Deuxième Guerre mondiale" when referring to the gas chambers and the Shoah.

    Well, Bartolone could very easily have been making reference to that event, and Le Pen as much as admits is, since Le Pen is the one who says "it was over 25 years ago": it's now 1 February 2015, so 13 September was 27 years, 4 months and 19 days ago.

    He's getting on in years, and he is now only "honorary president" of the party that his daughter is trying hard to "detoxify". The problem is that although he's still probably the sharpest knife in the FN's drawer, he can't keep his views to himself. He reminds me of a Tony Benn saying "Enoch Powell had the finest mind in Parliament until he made it up".

  6. Joshua said,

    February 1, 2015 @ 10:46 pm

    Comparing the National Front to the Tea Party, is, I think, even more nasty to the Tea Party than you may have intended to be. The National Front has a much worse reputation.

  7. champacs said,

    February 1, 2015 @ 11:41 pm

    @ Mark L. – ahead of your trip to France this summer you might enjoy following this language blog: http://jeanpierrecolignon.wordpress.com. J-P Colignon is a French-language specialist who takes a word used in the news on a particular day and explores its etymology, use, etc. in a daily blog post. Interesting.

  8. Jason said,

    February 2, 2015 @ 12:39 am

    @David Marjanović

    I believe the standard orthography is "j'suis". That's how my French facebook friends write it. Chuis, I imagine, is just confusing to everybody.

  9. ALB said,

    February 2, 2015 @ 5:52 am

    @David Marjanović: Contrary to what you seem to be saying, I have noticed (and been puzzled by the fact) that women very frequently don't use gender agreement when describing themselves with this adjective in speech (i.e. I often hear female friends say "chuis con!" instead of "chuis conne!"). There is something about this adjective that seems to allow this (I haven't noticed it with other words)…I'd love to hear an explanation of this!

    @Jason: "chuis" doesn't appear to confuse anyone, as this orthography reflects the pronunciation. In my experience, at least, "chuis" seems far more frequent than "j'suis" in informal writing (e.g. social media, SMS etc.).

  10. ALB said,

    February 2, 2015 @ 5:59 am

    To follow up: I'd say there's be a subtle difference in meaning between saying "chuis con" and "chuis conne"…It's a matter of intensity I think ("con" being a bit weaker than "conne" in such cases).

  11. Rodger C said,

    February 2, 2015 @ 7:56 am

    I gather what everybody is saying is that "con" is shifting from a noun to an adjective. That's sort of a fun thing.

  12. Judith Strauser said,

    February 2, 2015 @ 8:16 am

    @Rodger C – it's both. "Un con" is a jerk/asshole/moron (depending) as well as a vagina (though most people today forgot or never knew it had that meaning, anyway), so it's still used as a noun as well as an adjective. Its only adjectival meaning is the modern one, though, of moronic; there's no adjectival "vagina-like" or "vagina-ish" use.

  13. RP said,

    February 2, 2015 @ 8:29 am

    @ALB ('I often hear female friends say "chuis con!" instead of "chuis conne!"). There is something about this adjective that seems to allow this.'):

    Might the "con" in "chuis con!" not be parsed as a noun? French often allows omission of indefinite articles in this position. While a common example is job titles ("je suis ingénieur"), I don't think the rule is specific to them.

    I know that "con" does get used a full adjective, though, not just because of "conne" but also expressions such as "tellement con que", where only an adjective is possible (afaik).

    Also, of course, some adjectives are invariant for gender, and as it was originally a noun, it's easy to see from that perspective too how the feminine form might not always get marked.

  14. RP said,

    February 2, 2015 @ 8:51 am

    Note that for JMLP's gender joke to work, he had to use "vulve", since "vagin" (like "con") is masculine – just as at least three popular words for penis ("verge", "queue" and "bitte") are feminine.

  15. Mike said,

    February 2, 2015 @ 10:56 am

    I just assumed that faux-cul was an approximation of "fuck you", like the "fǎkè yóu 法克鱿" that Victor Mair writes about. It's a new French term to me.

  16. John O'Toole said,

    February 2, 2015 @ 1:08 pm

    For my Swiss Romande wife, the marked adjectival form of "con," e.g., Hélène est conne, does, or once did (we're pretty free with verboten terms anymore), raise the linguistic ante somewhat. As to RP's speculation that it might be a question of parsing con merely as a noun, I don't think so. I'd wager that it has more to do with the ubiquity of the unmarked adjectival sense of the term; it's used frequently for men and women (as well as situations—ah c'est con parce que je viens de le voir—and so on), whereas you won't hear conne nearly as often in a day. Perhaps it has to do with the fact that the speaker must make a slight effort to accorder l'adjectif with the feminine substantive whereas con is the default setting, if you will. That slight effort would draw greater attention to the term than usual, emphasize it, point up the vulgar con-ness in con. Finally, an amusing historical point, to get con into print before the twentieth century, there was, as in English, the dainty dot-dot approach of leaving letters out (i.e., c..), but publishers also used the equally utterly transparent trick of running the word backwards, noc! I can't think of every encountering an instance of this a tergo approach for an English vulgarism.

  17. J. W. Brewer said,

    February 2, 2015 @ 1:35 pm

    While this is not Comparative Politics Log, it's probably worth noting that due to differences in context there really isn't any sizeable group in U.S. politics that's a very good analogy to the National Front (I remember 20-odd years ago some US pundit calling Pat Buchanan a "parlor Poujadiste," which was a funny-if-you-got-the-reference attempt to use a somewhat comparable analogy, but Buchanan ultimately failed to construct a sizeable and lasting electoral faction around those idiosyncracies of his own POV that made the analogy semi-plausible). Maybe this is a good example of a certain difficulty in translation generally. You can always come up with sufficiently specialized jargon to translate from language A to language B, but if the referent is something that language-A speakers commonly encounter but is absent from the society or geographical setting of language-B speakers, it gets tricky. It might be like situations where you try to translate a name for a particular species of flora or fauna that exists in A-land but not B-land by using what seems like a similar species that's common in B-land but thereby run the risk that the objective biological differences between the species might turn out to be sufficiently material in a given context to make it a bad or misleading translation.

    Although of course political factions are not "natural kinds," and, in biological-analogy terms, can sometimes evolve surprisingly quickly in order to adapt to changed ecological circumstances, sometimes making certain aspects of their prior reputation out-of-date, as witness in this particular context http://forward.com/articles/205670/why-are-so-many-french-jews-voting-for-front-natio/

  18. Ferdinand said,

    February 3, 2015 @ 8:30 am

    Perhaps it's just a safe way to insult Bartolone a get extra wordsmith points by creatively rewording the standard "vrai con" with a synonym too clinical to amount to a finable "injure publique"?

  19. John Coleman said,

    February 5, 2015 @ 5:56 pm

    Front National is a good old antisemitic Euro-fascist party, not a "Tea Party"
    (Though they don't like it said, which is why now they focus on Muslims more than Jews.)

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