Stuff’s been happening since I last wrote about the association. After the president resigned – apparently because the secretary and I challenged him for sidestepping an committee -approved policy banning freebies for event organisers – his post was assumed by the vice-president.
The VP, a Belgian who spoke three languages, wasn’t the best person to step into top spot but he had his good points. He was inclusive, listened to advice and had some good ideas about what could be done to make the association more dynamic. On the downside, he reacted without thinking, couldn’t remember from one day to the next what decisions the board had reached, and was woodenly awkward with people, which was a bit of a handicap considering that PR is the president’s job.
The way things work in French associations is that all executive board members have to be re-approved by the general committee immediately following the AGM. If there are no challengers for any of the board jobs, it’s a general shoo-in. Nobody ever wants these posts, generally, and so it was highly unusual for a second presidential candidate to pop up.
The challenger was a Scottish ex-army type, an seemingly affable guy who hadn’t had much to say in committee meetings for the two years he’d been a member. He looked after a few things, but didn’t have any big ideas. It was generally thought that he was only semi-interested in taking on the presidency, and none of the executive board members (the president, secretary and me, the treasurer) thought he represented a threat to the status quo.
We all assembled a few days after the AGM, with the first item on the agenda being the election. The two presidential candidates gave their spiels, and as soon as the Scot opened his mouth, I figured he was done for. In perfectly decent French, he said that one of the first things he would change, were he to be elected president, would be to insist on English during the meetings meetings. My inner jaw dropped. The committee is comprised of 4 Anglophones, one Dutch and 10 native French speakers, of whom five are not terribly comfortable with English, and two are unilingual. Of those last two, one is the indefatigable and efficient secretary, the best the association has ever had.
To suggest that association business be conducted in a language unintelligible to two members, of which one is charged with writing the minutes, was so pompously ridiculous that I was sure the guy had dug his own grave in one sentence. I didn’t even bother challenging him on the point after he finished speaking, so inconceivable was the idea. We’ve never had a problem with those who have to temporarily detour into English to explain themselves, but once the translation is made we’re right back into the language of Voltaire.
Mais quelle surprise! The Scot won by 9 votes to 6, prompting the visibly shaken former president to resign from the committee on the spot. I was gobsmacked, as was the secretary and a few others around the table. Obviously quite a number of the Francophones had voted for the guy, and that made me think that they were voting against the Belgian’s woodenness more than they were approving of an English-language policy.
The second the sceptre was in the Scot’s hands, he morphed from innocuous bystander to tinpot dictator. The meeting would now be in English, he intoned, and the two Francophones who did not speak any English would have to just take some lessons. He smiled when he said it, but it wasn’t a joke. The secretary spit tacks. One of the Francophones said quietly that no one, not even the Anglophone presidents previously elected, had ever spoken anything but French in the boardroom. I saw red, and said that no one, not even the president, could impose English on a French association with a majority of French members. I spoke up, saw a few heads nod, and figured that would be that.
But if I thought that a public remonstration would stop him from trying that stunt again, I was wrong. Two days later, at a meeting of the five board members, which included me and the secretary, he tried again. About twenty minutes in, he announced that we would switch to English. I didn’t even try to be diplomatic this time. To proceed in anything other than French was at best bad manners and at worst, a display of astonishing arrogance, I said. He was forced to continue in French, but the atmosphere didn’t improve. He indicated in unsubtle ways that he considered himself to have the final word on everything, the secretary to be beneath his attention, and that he intended to keep an extremely close eye on what I was doing. My knee-jerk reaction was to butt heads with him at every turn.
The phone rang the next day, with a summons to his house for a one-on-one meeting to discuss our working relationship. Nyet to that idea, said I – we’ll meet somewhere neutral. I was brought up to be (in the absence of a really good reason) co-operative so my first reaction was to agree to a meet up, but my natural inclination is to go my own way. After a bit of reflection, I wrote him an email, explaining in plain but polite language what my position was regarding the language issue, and the autocratic manner he seemed to think was necessary, and further said that I had had quite enough of committee meetings for the time being. If he wished to respond in writing, I invited him to do so. I know perfectly well that emails aren’t the best environment to sort out a problem, but I’m at my best when I’ve got a figurative pen in my hand. He declined to reply, and insisted we meet.
I both hate and relish confrontation, in almost equal measure. When my dander is up, I’ll fight for what I believe is right, and I don’t take prisoners. But that reaction takes a personal toll in terms of stress, and it’s usually accompanied by serious doubts about whether or not I am actually right. The one thing I’m afraid of is being unfair, which is just another way of saying I terrified to be wrong. For two weeks, I wrestled with the knot in my stomach, trying to talk myself into not caring, trying to convince myself that was perfectly OK to speak my mind. Despite the impression I give of unlimited confidence, I’m not a fan of hubris. I prefer to get along with people, and I’m not at all disagreeable generally. But there are limits to what I’ll accept, and the Scot tested them sorely. I realised that I wouldn’t be able to calm my nerves until we both had a chance to say what was on our minds, and that if there was a chance to smooth the waters, I really should take it.
I got to the meeting point first and ordered a beer, paying for it before anyone else had a chance to offer. I don’t drink beer, but my inner spin-doctor thought it would send a message. My mantra for the previous couple of days had been ‘calm and confident’, and I was feeling pretty good. I had tried hard to get past the deeply-ingrained worry about not being nice. Tinpot duly arrived, and one of the first things he did was to comment on my beer. He was taken aback. I congratulated myself.
He jumped in with, ‘lots of people think the association is becoming far too French.’ There was no point in asking what nationality these ‘lots of people’ were, but I did ask him just how many they represented. Well, loads, he said, but had the grace to admit that ‘loads’ was difficult to quantify. Where do we live? I asked. He seemed puzzled. France, he answered. Indeed we do, I said.
He went on to say that I did far too much for the association, that I took jobs away from other people. Those same people who never raise their hands to volunteer for anything, I asked? I asked him what he thought I did, apart from keeping the books and filling in just this one time for the communications guy who abruptly quit doing the newsletter. He didn’t really know, so I spelled it out for him. In addition to those two things, one of which is strictly temporary, I had an idea a while back about how the association might assist the local junior high schools with their language exchange programs, which some students are not able to take advantage of due to financial hardship. Our members come from eleven different European countries, plus a few Americans and Canadians, and being open to other cultures is a big deal for us. Our bylaws state that giving back to the community is a fundamental part of who we are, but that has been slipping away over the last few years. I wanted to explore how we could fulfil that obligation while giving French kids a chance to travel to other countries. I also am part of a working group to develop a new website, since I use the existing site every day and have an insider’s familiarity with it.
He tried to prop up his position by fixing the number of people who didn’t feel comfortable with my involvement at six. If I were in it for personal power, I could understand that, I said. But the simple truth is that I like to help, have energy, time and ideas, and I feel strongly about the aims of the association. People who are bothered by that tend to be those who don’t do much, and are resentful that there are others who do more than they. They want control without earning it.
He wanted me to stay in my corner, do the books, and keep quiet. I declined, and told him exactly how things would go down. I would continue to challenge any attempt to Anglicise the association meetings unless every member of the committee agreed to it. I would continue to speak out against his efforts to quash dissent. I would continue to do my job and most of all, in what I viewed as my primary role, I would continue to defend the interests of an association which had been of great benefit to me and many others. And no, I wouldn’t play nice just to make his job easier.
I also called him on his treatment of the secretary. How he’d ignored her during the meeting, and literally waved her away as unimportant. I suggested that he had done so for one of three reasons: because she was French, because she was ‘just a secretary’ or because she was female. Maybe even all three. He blustered that he’d worked with lots of women in his life. And what does that prove? I asked. He had no answer. There is an almost visceral pleasure in laying bare the inconsistencies, bias and self-serving justifications of an opponent. I haven’t enjoyed an exchange so much since I acted as my own lawyer during my divorce. After a period of wordlessness he said, You’re pretty aggressive. I smiled. That’s always the word men use when they run up against an assertive woman,
I’m not going to waste any time wondering if I did the right thing, if I was fair, if I was too hard on the poor guy. I figure he’ll either shoot himself in the foot, or else he’ll get his way with a majority of the committee members who can’t be bothered, or just plain can’t stand up to him. If so, it’ll be a loss for all, but I’ll have done what I could. And by god, it felt good. I think I might be on a roll.