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French President Emmanuel Macron, left, made his controversial comments on the French language while meeting Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard in Paris.

Michel Euler/AP

The declaration was of a kind that might end a Quebec politician's career. A great way to promote the health of the French language, the speaker said, is to speak English.

The unorthodox pronouncement didn't come from some radio outrage merchant or mischievous anglophone, but rather, the leader of the most important country in the French-speaking world. French President Emmanuel Macron, flanked by Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard, was in Paris this week when he was asked if France does enough to promote the language.

"I am not among the grouchy defenders of the French language," Mr. Macron said, in French. "I am an ambitious and swashbuckling defender. So I never hesitate to express myself in French, in the language of a host country or in English on the international scene … it reinforces the Francophonie, and that French is not a besieged language."

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Mr. Couillard looked on with his usual pleasant smile. He is often criticized by Quebec nationalists for failing to stand up for the French language. He delivered an English-only speech at a conference in Iceland in 2014 and was raked over the coals for weeks.

But this time, back home in Quebec, where limiting the use of English is often considered a key tool in the preservation of French, an unusual scene played out. The pronouncement slipped by nearly unnoticed instead of lighting up the open-line shows or setting the editorial pages aflame.

Marie-France Bazzo, a television producer and host, was among the few people to express astonishment at the French President for his unusual idea to promote French. And while she was surprised by the indifference the statement met, she said Quebeckers increasingly understand the French are weak on French.

Ms. Bazzo said it's easy for the French to be insouciant about the future of the French language. France, after all, is on a continent with more than two dozen languages compared with Quebec's island of six million people struggling to preserve their language in a sea of English. "It's increasingly clear we are alone in our struggle," Ms. Bazzo said. "What is a 'grouchy defender' of the French language, exactly? Is it someone who defends French, who loves French, who worries that it's threatened on the streets in Montreal, who thinks it requires protection by the state, by law?"

Quebeckers are much more conscious of their minority status, Ms. Bazzo said, plus English vocabulary has infiltrated the French language in France on a scale that many Quebeckers would not accept.

"They just don't care and they have no consciousness that the French language could be threatened," Ms. Bazzo said. "France is neither a model nor an unconditional ally to Quebec in this struggle. Instead, you see an imperial attitude that doesn't even see the threat to the French language elsewhere in the world."

But could it be, instead, that Quebeckers too are ready for a Macron-style "ambitious and swashbuckling" view of a conquering French language rather than the familiar defensive posture of recent decades? Could that be a better way forward for preserving French?

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"To answer bluntly, no," said sociologist Jean-François Laniel, a postdoctoral fellow who co-ordinates a research project on trans-border relations between French-speaking communities for the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.

"The global popularity of a language is linked to the number and the power of those who speak it," he said, adding promoting multilingualism may be good political strategy and works for individuals but ultimately weakens minority languages if it means promoting a powerful language like English as the way for success.

Historically, French-speakers were a subjugated minority in North America while France was a global power on the forefront of progress, he said. While French influence has faded there is still "a relative absence of existential threat," Dr. Laniel said. "Things are different today but France and Emmanuel Macron still dream of a 'Great France' with a universal mission, even if it means speaking English and mimicking American cosmopolitanism to get there."

Quebec, meanwhile, expends enormous energy arguing over issues such as whether "bonjour-hi" is a suitable greeting in a Montreal store.

Mario Dumont, a former conservative provincial politician, was among the few commentators to join Ms. Bazzo in taking Mr. Macron to task for failing to defend French.

"When the President of France doesn't defend the status of French, it is troubling," Mr. Dumont said.

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Mr. Dumont also noted francophone Quebeckers have accepted France is weak on language. He described how Quebeckers have created new French words for hundreds of new terms while France-French has integrated English for words such as drug store and e-mail. (The Voice goes by the English name in France, La Voix in Quebec.)

"Quebeckers now take for granted that Quebec's defence of the French language is superior to the one of France," Mr. Dumont said. "Quebeckers go to France and are surprised to hear a bunch of English words being spoken, but hardly anybody speaks English. Meanwhile, Quebeckers speak French without as many English words, but, unlike the French, many of us can actually speak English.

"It's quite the paradox."

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