Le pingouin



This is a song which Carla Bruni wrote to vent her feelings after a man had deeply offended her.  It is probably a surprise to an English audience that she characterizes him as a penguin.  Athough the Penguin is a villain in the Batman stories, the English generally regard these little birds as lovable.

In French, however, the word penguin is often used when referring to people and has unflattering connotations.  It is used when you are speaking of some-one, whose name just won't come back to you, just as we say in English: “Thingamy” etc.  At its most pejorative, it means an ineffectual person, a nonentity even.  A common French expression illustrates this idea.  The English expression: “Don’t just stand there looking helpless” can be translated: “Ne reste pas là les bras ballants »  - which is further expanded sometimes to : « Ne reste pas là, comme un pingouin, les bras ballants». 
The kind of man that Carla Bruni is going to blast in her song is a penguin in this sense of a totally blank personality and this is made clear in the first three lines of the song : she introduces him as a penguin with « les bras ballants ».
The identity of the person attacked in he song is not revealed, but as soon as the song appeared the majority of the media was convinced that her words were directed against the man who had replaced her husband, Nicholas Sarkozy, as President of France, François Hollande.  The public controversy was intense. Diplomatically, Carla Bruni’s publicists took the line: "Il s'agit d'une chanson sur les gens mal élevés qui ne vise personne en particulier».  (It was an attack on ill-bred people in general and did not target anyone in particular.)

Carla Bruni herself said “Le Pingouin” was a humorous rant against unpleasant people: "People who come up to you and say, you’ve put on weight, you look tired, the CD you’ve just released is awful.” She said that she was always mortified and never knew what to say straightaway and that really got to her. However, she always thought of something to say a couple of days later.”

On the question of Carla’s intended target, however, the clues are somewhat blatant:
1) One of the tacks used by political commentators, hostile to M. Hollande, was that he was indecisive and he had been given the nickname - Mr Neither-Yes-Nor-No.
2) There are cruel similarities with M. Hollande in the description which she makes of the Penguin's physical appearance and demeanour. The Penguin is not ugly or plain, not tall or short, not hot or cold. Although François Hollande undoubtedly had many qualities and gifts to earn the leadership of a big French political party, most people would probably agree that he is not prepossessing in physique and public personality.
3) Another convincing clue is when Carla Bruni says: "T'as l'air tout seul dans ton jardin." The new President of France did, in fact, look very lonely in his garden on his first official portrait in office:
The electoral campaign had been very bitter and Carla Bruni regarded it as a public discourtesy that Francois Hollande did not accompany them, leaving them to make an undignified lone walk, back to their car in the Palace courtyard, after the official handover of power.
Some critics have expressed the opinion that Carla Bruni demeaned herself by publishing a song with such invective.  Nevertheless for any woman who feels herself wronged, while powerless to obtain redress, an outpouring of this kind must be very therapeutic.

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 Le pingouin 

C'est le pingouin que l'on aperçoit au matin,

It’s the penguin that you can spot in the morning
Les bras ballants le pingouin,

Arms dangling, lost, the penguin
Les bras ballants mais l'œil hautain

Arms dangling, lost, but th’eye haughty
Car il prétend le pingouin être sûr de ce qui est certain.

For he pretends, the penguin to be sure of what is quite certain
Il est savant ce pingouin.

He knows it all this penguin
Il a étudié son latin et son accent, le pingouin.

He has studied his latin and its accent, the penguin
Mais quand il parle on entend rien,

But when he speaks you don’t grasp a thing
Il bouffe ses mots le pingouin.

He swallows his words the penguin

Il cause comme on perd son chemin.

He talks on as you lose the thread
Il n'est ni beau le pingouin.

He’s not handsome the penguin.
Ni haut, ni bas, ni laid, ni loin.

Or tall, or short, or plain, or far
Ni froid ni chaud le pingouin.

Or cold or hot the penguin.
Ni tout, ni rien, rien, rien rien du tout.

Or all, or nothing, nothing, nothing at all.
Non tiens le pingouin

No, well, well, the penguin
On vient lui manger dans la main.

You come to feed him out of your hand
Il adore ça le pingouin.

He adores that the penguin
Il prend son petit air souverain.

He puts on his air, high and mighty
Mais j'le connais moi, l'pingouin.

But I know him, the penguin
Il a pas des manières de châtelain non.

He hasn’t any aristocratic manners no.
C'est mal élevé les pingouins

They’re badly brought up, the penguins
Faut que je lui donne des cours de maintien

I must give him some lessons in demeanour.

Eh le pingouin ! Si un jour tu recroises mon chemin,

And the penguin ! If one day our paths should cross again
Je t'apprendrai le pingouin,

I shall teach you the penguin
Je t'apprendrai à faire le baisemain.

I’ll teach you to kiss th’hand of a lady
Tu ravaleras le pingouin

You will swallow down, the penguin
Oui tu ravaleras ton dédain.

Yes you will swallow down your disdain
Tu m'fais pas peur le pingouin.

You don’t frighten me penguin
Tu m'fais pas peur, tu me fais rien, rien, rien, rien du tout.

You don’t frighten me, you do nothing for me, nothing, nothing at all

Tiens le pingouin,

Well, well the Penguin
T'as l'air tout seul dans ton jardin.

You look lonely in your garden.

T'as l'air inquiet le pingouin,

You look anxious the penguin
T'as mis ta tête de mocassin.

You’ve put on your mocassin face
T'es démasqué le pingouin.

You’ve dropped your mask the penguin
T'es bien puni, t'es mis au coin, coin.

Your punishment’s right, you’re put in the corner
C'est mérité le pingouin,

It’s well deserved the penguin.

T'avais qu'à pas être si vilain.

You had only not to be so nasty.
Je ne l'aime pas, ce pingouin,

I don’t like him, this penguin

M’a l’air sournois, M’a l’air radin,

Seems sullen to me, seems stingy
M’a l’air narquois, le pingouin,

Seems sneery to me , the penguin,
M'as l'air content de lui tout plein.

Seems to me all pleased with himself
Il a l'cœur froid ce pingouin,

He’s a cold heart, this penguin,

Il n'a pas l'air d'aimer son prochain,

He seems not to love his neighbour,

C'est pas pour moi les pingouins.

They’re not for me the penguins
J'préfér les biches, les chats, les chiens,

I prefer the deer, the cats, and the dogs
Les lions ou les dauphins,

The lions or the dolphins,

Pas les pingouins, pas les pingouins.

Not the penguins, not the penguins.

Non, pas les pingouins.

No not the penguins


Oh non, pas le pingouin

Oh no, not the penguin



1)      Les bras ballants – with arms dangling – NB the expression : Ne reste pas là les bras ballants = Don’t stand there looking helpless.

2)      As a French teacher, I have a refrain that runs : « Prétendre is a faux ami and means « to claim ».   In fact, it has a second meaning « to have the pretention », which is more or less « to pretend. »

3)      ni laid, ni loin. – It is hard to think how « far » fits in here.  A character criticism would be « distant » in English, but that translates in French « distant » or « froid ».

4)      manières de châtelain – manners of the Lord of the Manor.  Manor along with the word « manners » must necessitate a different word in the translation.
The Beatles also had a song about a man like this.  It seems that they may not have had any particular person in mind but were warning that there are elements of this character in all of us-

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