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The French Wikipedia article on Barack Obama is largely in the present tense. I read there that:

  • Il « naît le 4 août 1961 »
  • Ses parents « se marient le 2 février 1961 »
  • Il « va passer quatre ans en Indonésie », fréquentant éventuellement « une école publique où il est le seul étranger »
  • Etc.

This appears to be true of the average biography I read on French Wikipedia.

In English, if you use the present tense to recount past events, it's either literature ("It's hot outside. The leaves rustle on the pavement with the sound of kindling twigs") or an informal anecdote ("So I'm walking along Bloor, right? And I see this guy dressed as a clown who bumps my shoulder...").

But I recall from my first-year university courses that in French, you can use the present much more freely to talk about past events, as we've just seen above.

Is there a reference where I can investigate this or a short list of the situations in which it's suitable? If anyone else is curious about the question, is there a historical precedent, a similarity with closely related languages, or any other reason why the present works better than the past here?

4

C'est le Présent Historique. Il est très utilisé pour deux raisons (selon moi) :

  • Il rend les évènements plus vivants. Le passé simple est vite ennuyeux (surtout s'il est répété à outrance) et l'imparfait et le passé composé peuvent être assez mous.

    Le 7 décembre 1941, l'armée de l'air japonaise lance une attaque sur Pearl Harbor. Les Américains n'ont plus d'autre choix que d'entrer en guerre.

  • Il permet d'exprimer plusieurs temporalités au sein du récit, alors qu'on est moins libre quand on est déjà au passé. (On peut aussi utiliser le futur et des temps du passé)

    Après avoir tenté de s'enfuir, Louis XVI est arrêté à Varennes. Il sera condamné à mort et décapité quelques semaines plus tard.

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In addition to Teleporting Goat's good answer, that form of present if a natural reaction out of a need for practicality.

The example you used related to the English language are actually the same form of present, only the context is different. It's a form of narrative present that is used not to describe successive actions in real time but successive events in the course of history. The frame is different, but the intent remains the same.

If both an authors describing successive actions in a novel or your mate Pete to tell an anecdote, it's because what is important is what happened. Therefore, using the present pins the story to a moving forward timeframe. That way, both the author and your pal can describe what successively happens in their story and if they ever switch to more complex tenses, it' obvious to whoever reads/hears it that the reference is the point in time when the last present action occured.

Regarding its use in French, temporal forms in that language can quickly become a hassle, so standardized forms of present are a good way to focus on what happens instead of trying to figure out the meaning of the sentence. That's why these particular presents apply to actions.

For as far as I know, the forms of present in both English and French are the same, the only difference being how intensively we use it, certainly because our numerous and complicated different tenses often stand in the way of clarity.

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