Understand Fast Spoken French: Netflix’s A Very Secret Service

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Au service de la France, or “A Very Secret Service” in English, is part comedy, part drama, and gives some insight into French history from the 1960s, between the Cold War, conflict brewing in Algeria and the general movement of independence in French colonies in Africa. As well as everyday French office culture!

Let’s explore this series together, with an in-depth analysis of some scenes from this show so that you can practice your comprehension of real, everyday spoken French.

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1) Learn French with A Very Secret Service: First Scene

The three short scenes we’re going to cover together today come from Season 1, Episode 3 of the show.
Au Service de la France (= literally “At France’s service”) is a two-season-long TV comedy series that first ran in 2015 on Franco-German excellent channel Arte.

It takes place in 1960 (mille neuf-cent-soixante) right in the middle of la décolonisation, when French colonies started getting their independence. In the show, agent Roger Moulinier is the agent assigned to African affairs. He’s in charge of preventing that independence – and we know it’ll fail, since in the real world, 1960 is the exact year of independence for no less than 14 French colonies. Including le Sénégal, la Côte d’Ivoire, le Mali, le Burkina Faso, le Togo, le Cameroun, le Bénin… and more!

In that first scene, French secret agent Roger Moulinier is speaking to his superior, codename Moïse, while three African diplomats are still waiting in the building’s lobby. They’re from Dahomey, the former name of le Bénin, and they’re ready to negotiate their independence.

** Le truc en plus **

In French, “bénin” is also an adjective that means “benign.”

In the video lesson that you can watch above, I’ll show you each scene several times. With and without subtitles, at full speed or slowed down, so you can practice your understanding.

Notice their special spoken French: it’s a mix between everyday casual French (between incompetent, laid-back colleagues) but also formal French (for high-stakes diplomacy), outdated informal French (1960 slang and way of speaking), and a lot of bureaucratic French. That’s part of the fun of the show!

They still eat letters when speaking fast, for instance:

  • Ce que (= what is) is pronounced c’que / “ske”
  • Words starting with Re- (recevoir = to receive) → R’- (r’cevoir)…

Notice also:
Vous avez raison. = You’re right.

Vous êtes natif de Pontoise ? = “You were born in Pontoise, right?”
(Pontoise is a town near Paris.)

It’s a formal way to ask:
Vous êtes de Pontoise ? = You’re from Pontoise?
Vous venez de Pontoise ? = You come from Pontoise?
Vous êtes né à Pontoise ? = You were born in Pontoise?
Especially with “vous” instead of “tu” !

Click here to learn more : Tu or Vous? 5 Rules to Help You Choose

This question sets up the mention of la Seine-et-Oise, a former un département that included all of Parisian suburbs, that was broken down in 1968. That mention makes the scene sound really dated.

(You might even find a joke in the comparison between Seine-et-Oise, that was dismembered and renamed for administrative reasons without real input from the inhabitants, and French colonies in Africa.)

Here are the subtitles for the scene, in French and with the English translation:

Scène 1 – Moulinier & Moïse

– Ce que j’en dis, moi, c’est pour aider (hein).
– Ça n’aide pas. Vous êtes natif de Pontoise, vous ?
– Oui.
– Et si je vous dis que demain la Seine-et-Oise devient indépendante ? Que la Seine-et-Oise, ce n’est plus la France ?
– Ha ! … Vous avez raison.
– On va les recevoir. Hum ?
– Ici ? Mais pourquoi faire ?

– I say that, I just want to help (you know.)
– It’s not helping. You were born in Pontoise, right ?
– Yes.
– And what if I told you that tomorrow, the Seine-et-Oise department became independent? What if Seine-et-Oise isn’t France anymore?
– Ha ! … You’re right.
– We’re going to receive them.
– Here? But why?

2) Learn French with A Very Secret Service: Background & OSS 117

Jean-François Halin is the show’s screenwriter. He’s a former writer for the influential 90’s comedy show Les Guignols de l’Info. More to the point, he had already written about French spies before Au Service de la France: he’s a co-creator of the movies OSS 117, directed by Michel Hazanavicius, with French actor Jean Dujardin. They’re parodies of James Bond movies and old action films. The movies take place successively in 1955 and 1965, with the show’s period right in-between.

Au Service de la France shares a lot with the OSS 117 movies. They don’t only share a time period, a spy setting and even some characters. They also share the same second degré. It’s ironic humor that makes fun of the person telling the joke, and it’s a central concept in Au Service de la France and OSS 117. In both, you’ll have typical 1960s characters being naïvely ignorant, and casually sexist and racist – and it’s used to make fun of the period itself, and how we view our past and our present.

There’s a tension here, of course: the script and director paint their characters’ casual bigotry as ridiculous and laughable – but some people in the audience won’t agree with that “second degré” and might be a little too enthusiastic about these jokes without the irony.

A third opus of OSS 117 came out in 2021, taking place in 1985 with the same actor but a different director, but it was less well-received.

*** Le truc en plus ***

Learn more about “le second degré” in OSS 117 with this excellent video in French.



3) Learn French with A Very Secret Service: Second scene

Young agent André Merlaux is the protagonist of Au Service de la France. He’s mostly played straight, and we follow him throughout the season, as he goes from being an idealistic intern in training, to a competent secret agent.

After our first scene, Moulinier and Merlaux talked to the three African diplomats. Our second scene is their report to their superior.

Once again, the agents are speaking a mix of formal and casual French. Here, they don’t eat their negation in ne… pas, and that’s why it sounds a bit more formal. However, they still speak fast, so they do eat some “uh” sound when they can.

Notice also:

  • The ambassadors’ names: Oscar, Félix and Edmond.
  • Quant à = As for… (quant with a “t”, it’s not quand (= when))
  • The expression En gros (= basically, roughly)

You can also say in everyday French:

  • Environ (= around that, roughly)
  • Plus ou moins (= more or less)
  • À la louche (= “with a big spoon”)
  • À vue de nez (= “seen from the nose” = as a first estimation)

Here are the subtitles for the scene, in French and with the English translation:

Scène 2 – Merlaux & Moulinier & Moïse

– J’ai tout tenté. Tous les arguments possibles… Rien à en tirer.
– Ils ne sont pas repartis au moins.
– Non ! Ils ne veulent plus parler qu’à Merlaux. Et si vous voulez mon avis –
– Vous en pensez quoi, Merlot ?
– Eh bien, hum… Oscar est le plus radical. Félix est plus ouvert. Quant à Edmond (hm) il pourrait être le plus facile à convaincre.
– Oui… En gros c’est ça. En gros…

– I tried everything. All possible arguments… Nothing to get out of them.
– They didn’t leave, at least?
– No!… They only want to talk to Merlaux now. And if you want my opinion –
– What do you think, Merlot?
– Well, hum… Oscar is the most radical, Felix is more open. As for Edmond, he could be the most easily convinced.
– Yeah! That’s it basically. Basically.

4) Learn French with A Very Secret Service: Third scene

After that scene, Merlaux is assigned a new mission: negotiating Dahomey’s independence and its transition to a democracy. So he gets to work.

Notice in the scene:

  • La secrétaire Marie-Jo = Marie-Jo the secretary
  • Un stagiaire = An intern
  • Les heures supplémentaires = Overtime
  • Enquiquiner = to bother, to annoy (informal but outdated)
  • six heures moins vingt passées = after 5:40 (pm) (= Il est plus de six heures moins vingt.)

As you can see, that scene is another joke about French bureaucracy and work ethics. It’s a recurring theme in the show, actually: people are well-meaning, but they’re all way more interested in following the correct rules, specific designations and forms, than actually caring about their impact. And it’s funny within the high stakes of the show!

Here are the subtitles for the scene, in French and with the English translation:

Scène 3 – Merlaux & Marie-Jo

– Bah monsieur Merlaux qu’est-ce que vous faites ? Il est six heures moins vingt passées.
– Je… Je travaille.
– Mais… Vous savez que les stagiaires sont exclus du régime des heures supplémentaires.
– Mais je n’ai pas fini…
– Oui, mais ça m’enquiquine un peu… Bon, je ne dirai rien mais soyez discret.
– Merci Marie-Jo !

– Well, mister Merlaux, what are you doing? It’s past twenty to six.
– I’m… I’m working.
– But… You’re aware that interns aren’t part of the overtime pay system.
– But I didn’t finish…
– Yes, but it bothers me a bit… OK, I won’t tell on you but stay discreet.
– Thank you Marie-Jo!

Watch the video lesson again: can you now understand each scene on your first try?

Check out the show on Netflix, or practice that process again with another French TV show I enjoyed.

Click here to get your next free lesson: A French Netflix Must-Watch to Understand French Culture: L’Agence (The Parisian Agency)

À tout de suite.
I’ll see you in the next video!

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