Who owns Le Petit Prince ?

50 francs St Ex

posted by Catriona Seth

It is one of the best-loved tales in the world, translated into more than 270 languages, and with over 150 million copies sold. First published in 1943, Le Petit Prince has been turned into musicals, films and pop-up books, spawned T-shirts, mugs, dolls and pencil-cases… Its hero figures, with pictures of a plane, a map and the writer, on the last 50 franc note issued by France before it joined the euro.

The book’s author, Antoine de Saint-Exupery, was a pilot with the French Air Force (the ‘Armée de l’Air’) during his military service. He continued to fly on his return to civilian life, and worked for companies delivering mail from Toulouse to Dakar in Senegal and then within South America. He drew on his experience with the ‘Aéropostale’ in novels like Courrier Sud (1929—Southern Mail) and Vol de Nuit (1931—Night Flight)—and indeed in Le Petit Prince with its aviator-narrator who is alone in the desert. He was in the ‘Armée de l’Air’ at the start of the second world war—Pilote de Guerre (1942—Flight to Arras) is based on his memories of the period during which he earned the ‘Croix de Guerre’, a war service medal for his bravery in landing a damaged aircraft. He joined the resistance. After spending time in North America, he returned to France, via Algeria, Morocco and Sardinia, and became part of a unit charged with photographic missions to prepare detailed maps for the allied landings in the South of France (the ‘débarquement de Provence’). His unarmed plane, in which he was flying alone, went down just off Marseilles on July 31st 1944. Though the wreckage was located and brought up to the surface at the beginning of this century, no-one knows, even now, whether it was an accident or whether the aeroplane was shot down.

Vol de Nuit

The question of who owns intellectual property (texts, tunes etc.) was raised seriously just before the French Revolution by Beaumarchais, who is most famous nowadays for two plays: his 1775 Barbier de Séville and his 1784 Mariage de Figaro, the basis for Rossini and Mozart’s operas. The Revolutionary government sought to protect the rights of creators. There were discussions over the decades about the duration of exclusive ownership and what happened after an author’s death. The law has changed over the centuries. The French distinguish two types of ‘droits d’auteur’ or authors’ rights. The ‘droit moral’ or ‘moral right’, for instance, for Saint-Exupery to be considered the author of his books, for all eternity; the ‘droit patrimonial’ of his descendants to receive revenue generated by his works for a set number of years according to legal dispositions.

In much of the world, currently, heirs to a dead author enjoy rights associated with his or her works for 50 years, after which the writings are considered to be in the public domain. In the European Union, the term is 70 years, as a result of legal harmonisation agreed upon in 1993 but only applied in France since 1997. As Saint-Exupery died in 1944, his works should have become freely available on January 1st 2015—though they were already considered to be in the public domain in countries like India or Morocco which are not as generous in their protection of literary property rights as European law. In the U.K. or Ireland for instance, Le Petit Prince, like Vol de Nuit or Courrier Sud, has indeed been out of copyright for over a year. The same does not hold true for France. Before the EU came to an agreement regarding the time during which works would be protected, France applied a duration of 50 years post mortem but also had a special clause for those who had lived through one or other of the world wars (or both): the war years were deemed to count twice, so for ‘Saint-Ex’ as he is affectionately known, you need to add 8 years and 120 days to the 50 years everyone was granted. In addition, as Saint-Exupery was engaged in active service, he is deemed (like Apollinaire in 1918) to have died for his country—‘mort pour la France’ is the official designation—which means a 30 year gratification is granted. Result: (50+8+30) years+120 days, added to 1944, means that, as there is no retroactive application of the 70 year rule, Saint-Exupery’s texts will only come into the ‘domaine public’ in France in… April 2033.

50 francs St Ex revers (1)

Here is a brief news film (some of which is in English) about a recent adaptation of Le Petit Prince carried out with ‘la bénédiction’ (the blessing) of the Saint-Exupery family. A short series of questions follows. You may need to listen to the French voiceover two or three times before you can answer them. Answers are given first in French, then in English.



De quelle nationalité est Mark Osborne ?

Où se diffuse et se diffusera le film d’animation tiré du Petit Prince ?

Pourquoi Osborne avait-il d’abord refusé de travailler sur Le Petit Prince ?

Pourquoi est-il difficile d’adapter une œuvre comme Le Petit Prince ?

Quand le DVD du Petit Prince sortira-t-il en France ?



Mark Osborne est américain.

Le film est à l’affiche au Chili et en Colombie. Il sera bientôt diffusé au Mexique.

Osborne avait refusé de travailler sur Le Petit Prince car il pensait qu’il serait difficile de rester fidèle à l’histoire

Il est difficile d’adapter une œuvre comme Le Petit Prince car chacun s’en fait une interprétation personnelle.

Le DVD sortira en France le 2 décembre.



Mark Osborne is American.

The film is being projected in Chili and Colombia. It will soon be shown in Mexico.

Osborne initially refused to work on Le Petit Prince because he thought it would be hard to remain true to the story.

It is difficult to adapt a work like Le Petit Prince because everyone has their own personal interpretation.

The DVD will be available in France from December 2nd.


Quelques petites remarques. Un film est à l’affiche quand il est donné dans les cinémas (qu’on appelle parfois aussi les salles obscures) : les affiches devant les cinémas indiquent ce qui se joue à ce moment-là.

Le film sera diffusé à partir du 2 décembre prochain indique que le clip d’animation a probablement été réalisé peu avant le mois de décembre. Il y a donc un effet d’annonce.


Bookshelf Book Club: Meursault, contre-enquête by Kamel Daoud


posted by Simon Kemp

Last summer, Waterstones bookshops in the UK found themselves with an unlikely bestseller among their holiday beach reading. It was the English translation of the French-language debut novel of an Algerian journalist. What’s more, it was a novel that would make almost no sense to you unless you’d previously read a mid-twentieth-century French philosophical novel by a writer who’s been dead for over fifty years. The novel is Meursault, contre-enquête by Kamel Daoud (translated as The Meursault Investigation), and it’s our choice for the Bookshelf book club.

The novel has caused a great kerfuffle on the French literary scene. It’s been showered with accolades and prizes, including the Prix Goncourt for the best first novel of the year. It has also earned its author an islamist death threat for its outspoken criticism of the role of religion in Algerian life since independence. If you’d like to read a novel in French from outside France, you won’t find one with more impact, culturally and politically, than this one.

Meursault, contre-enquête has a simple, brilliant idea at its heart: what if Albert Camus’s L’Etranger, perhaps the most famous French novel of the last century, was non-fiction? What if it was the autobiography of a real person called Meursault, who really did shoot an Arab man dead on the beach in the 1940s? And what if that Arab man had had a brother…?

Camus’s novel tells us almost nothing about the man Meursault kills, not even his name. Daoud’s novel starts out by setting us straight on that score, sketching a hazy portrait of the dead man through the eyes of the child his brother was, and the memory of the old man he has now become. Haroun, the narrator, starts out by condemning Meursault for leaving his murdered brother’s name out of the story. It looks a little like Daoud the author might be condemning Camus for the same omission. But if you know Camus’s work, you can see there’s already something odd going on. The set-up of Daoud’s novel, as if the reader were being button-holed by an old man in a bar to listen to his story, is the exact same premise of another of Camus’s novels, La Chute. It seems a strange kind of homage in an novel meant as an attack on its subject.

And things are indeed more complicated than they first appear. As the years go by, the ‘investigation’ stagnates, and Algeria changes around Haroun beyond all recognition, Haroun finds himself starting to resemble Meursault in unexpected ways…

This recommendation comes with a few provisos. Meursault contre-enquête, although it’s short, is quite a challenging read, in French or English, so don’t let the ‘investigation’ of the title fool you into thinking you’re in for a page-turning detective story.  It’s also not scared of controversy where religion is concerned, although its thoughtful critiques are a world away from the inflammatory provocations of 2015’s most notorious novel about Islam, Michel Houellebecq’s Soumission. And thirdly, as I said at the beginning, there’s no point at all in reading it unless you read L’Etranger first. If you think you can deal with all that, though, you have a remarkable reading experience in store for you.



There’s no ‘i’ in ognon


posted by Simon Kemp

There’s trouble in the French dictionary. As you might have heard, everything’s changing in French. No less than two thousand four hundred French words are losing accents or changing spelling in a drive to make French spelling simpler and closer to how it sounds when spoken.

Actually, nothing has to change unless you want it to. All 2400 simplifications are optional alternatives and  you can stick to the old spellings if you want to.

Also, strictly speaking, this isn’t a new thing. In fact, the Académie française came up with all of these changes way back in 1990. Officially, they’ve been accepted for the last twenty-six years. In practice, though, everyone has pretty much ignored what the Académie française said, and nobody has been using the new spellings. Now, though, for the first time, school textbooks are being printed using them. Once they start being taught in schools, the thinking goes, they’re part of French life, and as current schoolchildren grow up, they’ll gradually come to be used by everyone.

So what are the changes?

Firstly, circumflexes on the letters ‘u’ and ‘i’ are becoming optional. They don’t have any effect on the sound of the vowel: they just indicate where, in the past, the word used to include a letter ‘s’ that long ago stopped being pronounced. (We talked about this here.)

This means that ‘coût’ (cost) can now be spelled ‘cout’, and ‘paraître’ (seem, appear) can be ‘paraitre’. There are a few cases where it has to stay, because the circumflex is the only thing that shows the difference between two different words, such as ‘du’ (of the) and ‘dû’ (past participle of devoir), or ‘sur’ (on) and ‘sûr’ (sure).

Otherwise, various hyphens are disappearing, so week-end becomes weekend and mille-pattes becomes millepattes. Some words are changing spelling in other ways.Oignon’ (onion), which looks like it ought to be pronounced with a ‘wa’-sound like ‘oiseau’, but isn’t, is now changing spelling to ‘ognon’ to match how it sounds. (After years and years of studying French and trying to get all my spellings right, and then years and years more of teaching it, and trying to correct everyone else’s, I can’t tell you how wrong it feels to write ‘ognon’.) Also waterlilies are changing from nénuphar to nénufar (although, weirdly, other ‘ph’ words like le phare are unaffected).

Here’s a French newspaper article about the changes. And here’s a quiz you can do to guess the new spellings.

French Roots 3 (with more trees): The Franks


posted by Simon Kemp

In previous posts we’ve looked at two of the ancient roots of the French language in other tongues: firstly the Gaulish language of some of the earliest inhabitants of France, and secondly the two waves of Latin brought by the Roman invaders initially, and revived in the early middle ages by the scholars of the Carolingian renaissance. Our third and final French root comes deep in the dark ages, fitting in between the first and second influxes of Latin. This time, we have the people who gave their name to the country, and to the language itself. We’re talking about the Franks.


The Franks were a Germanic people who invaded and occupied much of what is present-day France in the fifth century, filling the power vacuum left by the fall of the Roman empire. They spoke a language related to modern German, and this was to leave a strong imprint on the evolution of French.

They brought with them many words relating to combat and chivalry, including those that would become in modern French l’éperon (spur), l’étrier (stirrup), la guerre (war), la hache (axe), la honte (shame), gagner (win) and haïr (hate). There were also many words relating to farming, country life and the natural world, including those that would become le blé (wheat), la framboise (raspberry), le jardin (garden), le héron (heron), la houille (coal), as well as the trees le hêtre (beech) and le houx (holly).

These are only a tiny selection of the more than four hundred words of Frankish origin which are in common use in modern French. Did you notice anything odd about the ones I picked? In French, as you know, an initial letter ‘h’ is usually treated as if it wasn’t there at all, so the ‘le’ of ‘l’homme’ is elided just as if the word began with a vowel. However, as you also know, there is a small number of words in which, without actually pronouncing it, we treat the ‘h’ as a consonant, and thus get constructions like ‘la haie’ (hedge). Or like la hache, la honte, le héron, la houille, le hêtre  and le houx. As it turns out, most of these kinds of words have a Frankish origin, coming as they do from a Germanic language which was very good at pronouncing its h’s. L’homme and the pretend-it’s-not-there h-words mostly have a Latin origin*, and le houx and the act-as-if-we’re-pronouncing-it-even-though-we’re-not h-words have a Germanic origin.

In French there are lots of h-words like l’homme and not many like la haie, reflecting the relative importance of Latin and Germanic languages on the development of French. Here in English, as you may have noticed, we have a lot of h-words where we pronounce the first letter (head, hair, hand, hold…), and a much smaller number where we don’t (heir, honour, hour, honest…). Funnily enough, the reason is the same. The first lot are Germanic in origin, brought over by the Anglo-Saxon invaders; the second are Franco-Latin, introduced in the Norman conquest. Since we English-speakers speak a language that is basically Germanic with a smattering of Romance (French and Latin) influence, we pronounce the first letter of most of our h-words. Since French is fundamentally a Latin-based language with a smattering of Germanic influence, they do it the other way around.

All of which is a nice way to remember why beech trees and holly trees in French have an ‘aspirate “h”‘ when you say their names. It’s because they’re a bit German, and the Germans know how to pronounce a letter ‘h’ when they see one.

Le-Hetre-22-decembre* (Yes, it’s true that Latin has h-words that the Romans probably used to pronounce, but somewhere along the road leading from Latin to French, the h’s dropped out of spoken use.)