Using the present tense like the past?

ImogenA1Kwiziq community member

Using the present tense like the past?

I've noticed a few examples of this in previous reading exercises where the present tense is used to describe the past. Ex "En France c'est Napoléon..." rather than, "En France, c'etait Napoléon...", even in the translation when you click on it translates that phrase in the present as 'In France it was Napoleon'. I can see that the following phrase uses the passé composé so I'm just not quite clear why those two phrases don't have to agree in their tenses? 

Thanks :)

Asked 1 month ago
CélineKwiziq team memberCorrect answer

Bonjour Imogen,

Thank you for your question! It is what we call ‘Le Présent historique’ or ‘historical present’. In French, when narrating historical events or facts, you commonly use Le Présent historique whilst in English grammar you would tend to stick to the past tense. It makes the related events more lively.

En 1936, Léon Blum devient Président = in 1936 Léon Blum became President

La foule enragée envahit la Bastille = the furious crowd stormed La Bastille

Napoléon signe la loi sur le Code du Travail Napoléon signed the decree on the Labour Code

I hope this is helpful.

Bonne journée!

AlanC1 Kwiziq Q&A super contributor

But I don't think this article is written in the historical present. As Imogen says, the following phrase uses the passé composé. 

I think this is specific to "c'est". In English we say "it was X who did something", but in French it's "c'est X". It's more logical than English, perhaps, since it's still true now that X did that.

MaartenC1 Kwiziq Q&A super contributor

I think Alan is correct. This is similar to French "Je suis né .. " or "Napoleon est né.. .", not «J'étais né . .» or «Napoleon était né . .».  Another example «C'est moi qui ai fait les courses ce matin» whereas in English we would most likely say "It was me who did the shopping this morning".

Using the present tense like the past?

I've noticed a few examples of this in previous reading exercises where the present tense is used to describe the past. Ex "En France c'est Napoléon..." rather than, "En France, c'etait Napoléon...", even in the translation when you click on it translates that phrase in the present as 'In France it was Napoleon'. I can see that the following phrase uses the passé composé so I'm just not quite clear why those two phrases don't have to agree in their tenses? 

Thanks :)

Sign in to submit your answer

Don't have an account yet? Join today

Ask a question

Find your French level for FREE

Test your French to the CEFR standard

Find your French level
Clever stuff underway!