Le présent billet a été rédigé par Jonathan Goldberg, que je remercie.
Agent provocateur is an example of a French expression which is used in English in its original French form, without translation. “Provocative agent” does not exist in English and, if used, would be unintelligible.
Un agent provocateur est une personne agissant secrètement pour le compte d'un groupe mais apparaissant comme le membre d'un autre pour perturber son activité incitant délibérément, par ses propos et son comportement, à commettre des actes sanctionnés par la loi ou par l'opinion publique (Wikipedia).
Quotation: “"You give yourself for an 'agent provocateur.' The proper business of an 'agent provocateur' is to provoke. As far as I can judge from your record kept here, you have done nothing to earn your money for the last three years."
From The Secret Agent, 1907, by H. G. Wells
While the verb "to provoke" can be used in the same sense that French uses "provoquer", the French verb is often used in a much more prosaic way, where there is no element of provocation, as English speakers would understand it. In “French False Friends”, written by CWE Kirk-Greene, “provoquer” is defined as: “To provoke, but often to induce, cause, bring about. Ex. Mais qu’est ce qui a provoqué cette chute de pierres? »
The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language gives four definitions of “to provoke”, three of which suggest that the English usage contains an element of incitement, but one further example which is much closer to the French usage, serving almost as a synonym for "to cause".
The first three definitions are:
1. To incite to anger or resentment.
2. To stir to action or feeling.
3. To bring about deliberately; induce: provoke a fight.
The definition suggesting the more prosaic usage is 4. to give rise to; evoke, e.g. provoke laughter.
The Dictionary states further:
"SYNONYMS provoke, incite, excite, stimulate, arouse, rouse, stir. These verbs mean to move a person to action or feeling or to summon something into being by so moving a person." Yet, it goes on to state
Provoke often merely states the consequences produced: "Let my presumption not provoke thy wrath" (Shakespeare).
In my opinion, this usage is very infrequent in English. For practical purposes, “to provoke” is almost always used in the sense of “to cause a provocation”, which is the work of “agents provocateurs”.
On the other hand, the English word “provocative” (provocant/e” in French) has a much more positive connotation: “serving or tending to provoke, excite, or stimulate; stimulating discussion or exciting controversy; "a provocative remark"; "a provocative smile"; "provocative Irish tunes which...compel the hearers to dance"- Anthony Trollope” (The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language.)