Language policy in France
France has one official language, the French language. The French government does not regulate the choice of language in publications by individuals, but the use of French is required by law in commercial and workplace communications. In addition to mandating the use of French in the territory of the Republic, the French government tries to promote French in the European Union and globally through institutions such as La Francophonie. The perceived threat from Anglicisation has prompted efforts to safeguard the position of the French language in France.
Besides French, there exist many other vernacular minority languages of France, both in European France, in Overseas France, and in French overseas territories. These languages are recognized by article 75-1 of the French constitution. In France proper, Corsican, Breton, Gallo, Basque, Franco-Provençal, Occitan, and Catalan have an official status in the regions where they are spoken. The 1999 report written for the French government by Bernard Cerquiglini identified 75 languages (including just eight in continental France proper) that would qualify for recognition were the government to ratify the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages (currently signed but not ratified).
The Ordinance of Villers-Cotterêts of 1539 made French the administrative language of the kingdom of France for legal documents and laws. Previously, official documents were written in medieval Latin, which was the language used by the Roman Catholic Church.
The Académie française was established in 1635 to act as the official authority on the usages, vocabulary, and grammar of the French language, and to publish an official dictionary of the French language. Its recommendations however carry no legal power and are sometimes disregarded even by governmental authorities. In recent years the Académie has tried to prevent the Anglicisation of the French language.
Prior to the French Revolution of 1789, French kings did not take a strong position on the language spoken by their subjects. However, in sweeping away the old provinces, parlements and laws, the Revolution strengthened the unified system of administration across the state. At first, the revolutionaries declared liberty of language for all citizens of the Republic; this policy was subsequently abandoned in favour of the imposition of a common language which was to do away with the other languages of France. Other languages were seen as keeping the peasant masses in obscurantism.
The new idea was expounded in the Report on the necessity and means to annihilate the patois and to universalise the use of the French language. Its author, Henri Grégoire, deplored that France, the most advanced country in the world with regard to politics, had not progressed beyond the Tower of Babel as far as languages were concerned, and that only three million of the 25 million inhabitants of France spoke a pure Parisian French as their native tongue. The lack of ability of the population to understand the language in which were the political debates and the administrative documents was then seen as antidemocratic.
The report resulted the same year in two laws which stated that the only language tolerated in France in public life and in schools would be French. Within two years, the French language had become the symbol of the national unity of the French State. However, the Revolutionaries lacked both time and money to implement a language policy.
In the 1880s, the Third Republic sought to modernize France, and in particular to increase literacy and general knowledge in the population, especially the rural population, and established free compulsory primary education.
The only language allowed in primary school was French. All other languages were forbidden, even in the schoolyard, and transgressions were severely punished. After 1918, the use of German in Alsace-Lorraine was outlawed. In 1925, Anatole de Monzie, Minister of public education, stated that "for the linguistic unity of France, the Breton language must disappear." As a result, the speakers of minority languages began to be ashamed when using their own language – especially in the educational system – and over time, many families stopped teaching their language to their children and tried to speak only French with them. In neighbouring Belgium, a parallel policy to expand the use of standard French also took place.
The 1950s were also the first time the French state recognised the right of the regional languages to exist. A law allowed for the teaching of regional languages in secondary schools, and the policy of repression in the primary schools came to an end. The Breton language began to appear in the media during this time.
The French government allowed in 1964 for the first time one and a half minutes of Breton on regional television. But even in 1972, president Georges Pompidou declared that "there is no place for minority languages in a France destined to make its mark on Europe."
In 2006 a French subsidiary of a US company was fined €500,000 plus an ongoing fine of €20,000 per day for providing software and related technical documentation to its employees in English only. See the Toubon Law.
The debate about the Council of Europe’s Charter for Regional or Minority Languages
In 1999 the Socialist government of Lionel Jospin signed the Council of Europe’s European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, but it was not ratified. The Constitutional Council of France declared that the Charter contains unconstitutional provisions since the Constitution states that the language of the Republic is French.
The European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages is a European convention (ETS 148) adopted in 1992 under the auspices of the Council of Europe to protect and promote historical regional and minority languages in Europe, ratified and implemented by 25 States, but not by France, as of 2014. The charter contains 98 articles of which signatories must adopt a minimum of 35 (France signed 39). The signing, and the failure to have it ratified, provoked a public debate in French society over the charter.
More recently, in a letter to several deputies dated 4 June 2015, François Hollande announced the upcoming filing of a constitutional bill for the ratification of the European Charter for Regional and Minority Languages. On the 30 July 2015, the Council of State gave an unfavorable opinion on the charter. On the 27 October 2015, the Senate rejected the draft law on ratification of the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages driving away the assumption of Congress for the adoption of the constitutional reform which would have given the value and legitimacy to regional languages.
Minority languages and endangered languages
Excluding the languages spoken in the overseas regions and other overseas territories, and the languages of recent immigrants, the following languages are spoken by sizeable minorities in France:
- Romance languages: Caló, Catalan, Corsican, Franco-Provençal, Italian, Ligurian, Oïl languages (other than French), Occitan, Portuguese, and Spanish (Castilian Spanish), Gallo.
- Germanic languages: Dutch, Flemish, Luxembourgish, Lorrainian and Alsatian.
- Celtic languages: Breton.
- Romani languages.
The non-French Oïl languages and Franco-Provençal are highly endangered; because of their similarity to standard French, their speakers conformed much more readily. The other languages are still spoken but are all considered endangered.
In the 1940s, more than one million people spoke Breton as their main language. The countryside in western Brittany was still overwhelmingly Breton-speaking. Today, about 170,000 people are able to speak Breton (around 8% of the population in the traditionally Breton speaking area), most of whom are elderly. Other regional languages have generally followed the same pattern; Alsatian and Corsican have resisted better, while Occitan has followed an even worse trend.
Accurate information on the state of language use is complicated by the inability (due to constitutional provisions) of the state to ask language use questions in the census.
Since the rejection of ratification of the European Charter, French governments have offered token support to regional languages within the limits of the law. The Délégation générale à la langue française (General delegation of the French tongue) has acquired the additional function of observing and studying the languages of France and has had "et aux langues de France" (...and languages of France) added to its title.
The French government hosted the first Assises nationales des langues de France in 2003, but this national round table on the languages of France served to highlight the contrast between cultural organisations and language activists on the one hand and the state on the other.
The decentralization has not extended to giving power in language policy to the regions.
Opposition to language policy
France presents itself as country struggling for cultural diversity against the predominance of English in international affairs. According to French republican ideology (see also Laïcité), all citizens are ultimately Frenchmen and therefore no minority groups (i.e. ethnolinguistic groups) may exercise extra rights; this is an idea stemming from the French Revolution, contrasting with the previous situation in which many distinguishable groups had special rights and privileges in their regions.
This policy of cultural homogeneity has been challenged from both the right wing and the left wing. In the 1970s, nationalist or regionalist movements emerged in regions such as Brittany, Corsica and Occitania. Even though they remain a minority, networks of schools teaching France's regional languages have arisen, such as the Diwan in Brittany, the Ikastola in the Basque Country, the Calandreta in Occitania, and the La Bressola schools in Northern Catalonia.
Despite popular demand for official recognition, regional language teaching is not supported by the state. However, in certain areas, such as Brittany, regional councils maintain bilingual public schools as far as it is within the law. Other Breton education is provided by Catholic schools and private schools, Dihun and Diwan, respectively. In 2011, only 14,000 pupils were enrolled in French-Breton bilingual schools, although this number reflected an increase of around 30% from the year 2006, when the number of pupils was just over 11,000. The Ofis Publik ar Brezhoneg also reported in 2011 that a further 16,000 students from early childhood to adulthood were learning Breton as a second language (at primary schools, collèges, lycées, university or evening courses), bringing the total number of Breton learners to at least 30,000.
A long campaign of defacing road signs led to the first bilingual road signs in the 1980s. These are now increasingly common in Brittany, because of the help given by the Ofis ar Brezhoneg in bilingualizing many road, town hall and other official signs.
As far as the media are concerned, there is still little Breton to be found on the airwaves, although since 1982 a few Breton-speaking radio stations have been created on an associative basis. The launching of the Breton TV Breizh in 2000 was intended to offer wider coverage of Breton. However, Breton-language programme schedules gradually decreased in favour of French-language broadcasting, until in 2010 they totally disappeared.
In Corsica, the 1991 "Joxe Statute", in setting up the Collectivité Territoriale de Corse, also provided for the Corsican Assembly, and charged it with developing a plan for the optional teaching of Corsu. At the primary school level Corsu is taught up to a fixed number of hours per week (three in the year 2000) and is a voluntary subject at the secondary school level, but is required at the University of Corsica.
There is some opposition to the Loi Toubon mandating the use of French (or at least a translation into French) in commercial advertising and packaging, as well as in some other contexts.
- Article 75-1: (a new article): "Les langues régionales appartiennent au patrimoine de la France" ("Regional languages belong to the patrimony of France"). See Loi constitutionnelle du 23 juillet 2008.
- (in French) Les langues de la France, Report of Bernard Cerquiglini
- (in French) La langue française » La politique linguistique aujourd'hui on the site of Académie française
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