French language law: The attempted ruination of France’s linguistic diversity.

Gavin Radford

JS French and Spanish

The following is the winning article in the ‘Alternative Perspectives’ competition for non-law students, kindly sponsored by Arthur Cox.


France is a country with a rich and diverse linguistic landscape. It is the most linguistically varied country in Western Europe with 51% of the population speaking another language in addition to their mother tongue, yet, any attempts at gaining recognition for its many languages and dialects have been stifled by the implementation of several regressive language laws. Fundamentally, the constitution of the Fifth Republic states in its second article- “la langue de la République est le français”. This, in effect, constitutional prohibition of any language other than French gaining national status has been the basis for successive French governments’ refusal to legislate in favour of recognising the scores of regional and other languages spoken in France. However, it has not stopped debate, discussion and indeed the enactment of many linguistic laws.

The French obsession with linguistic policy dates from before the 1500s. A single official language is a strong marker of national identity and indeed the linguistic unity of France has been a policy aim of all French leaders from the kings of the Anciens Régimes to the presidents of the Fifth Republic. Language laws were being enacted with gusto, in particular, from the late 1800s onwards.  The Jules Ferry laws of 1882, which secularised the French education system also designated French as the exclusive language of educational instruction. These laws, although considered highly progressive, and as the foundation for many educational policies around the world, were in fact extremely regressive from a linguistic point of view, as they contributed to the forcing of many of France’s regional languages into near extinction. Because of this policy of educational monolingualism, children were often beaten and forced to wear a “dunce hat” for speaking any language other than French at school. As happened with the Irish language in Ireland, the lack of any official backing for regional languages led to these languages gaining an inferior status, not only on the legislative books, but, crucially, in public opinion too. By 1940, there were no new monolingual speakers of regional languages and only one in four people spoke a regional language at all.

Since the 1950s, there has been a consistently defensive and protectionist approach by successive governments towards the French language to the detriment of the other languages of France, particularly demonstrated, in the great tradition of French bureaucracy, by the creation of statutory institutes charged with the promotion and protection of the standard French dialect. These institutes are under the charge of the French Ministry for Culture and often comically referred to as ‘the language police’. As the English language started to become the dominant global language, French language policy took account of this, and these institutes, the first being the Haut Comité pour la défense et l’expansion de la langue française, was set up by de Gaulle in 1962 to promote the French language and also to combat the growing number of Anglicisms being used in the French language. The Loi Toubon (or the Loi Allgood as it is wittingly named by its opponents) of 1994 made the presence of any language other than French in advertisements, government publications, workplace memoranda etc. illegal. This law, although the basis for some successful lawsuits, is circumvented on a daily basis. The successor organisation to De Gaulle’s Haut Comité, namely, la Délégation Générale à la langue française et aux langes de France, under the auspices of the Ministry for Culture is charged with creating French alternatives for Anglicisms which appear in everyday French. The new French words and phrases are almost completely ignored by the French in favour of their English alternatives, who continue to talk about ‘cloud computing’ rather than ‘informatique en nuage’ and hashtags rather than ‘mot-dièses’.

Despite the legal stifling of linguistic diversity in France, some law-makers have attempted, with the constant threat of constitutional incompatibility, to legislate to acknowledge the presence of other languages in France. The first, albeit tokenistic, piece of legislation was enacted in 1951 in the form of the Loi Deixonne, which gave formal status in education to four regional languages, namely: Basque, Breton, Catalan and Occitan. The law was little more than a gesture and it was minimal in its impact. The teaching of regional languages was strictly optional and not encouraged in any meaningful way. They were excluded from the Baccalaureate syllabus, and, the teaching of regional languages was limited to one hour per week. Furthermore, the Law was not applied for a further 19 years. However, as decades rolled by, more regional languages were brought under its remit and they became optionally examinable in the Baccalaureate.

In recent years, France’s membership of the European Union has meant a watering-down of its policy on national monolingualism. For example, it would contravene EU law for France to limit French as the only language of the workforce. In the 80s and 90s, linguistic issues began dividing the socialist and conservative political camps, with the socialists unsurprisingly favouring a relaxation of the monolingual approach. In 1998, under pressure from the recently elected socialist government, President Jacques Chirac signed the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. However, it was quickly referred to the Constitutional Council of France, with prosecutors arguing that the preamble, which recognises the right to use a regional language in private and public life, was repugnant to the aforementioned Article 2 of the constitution. A lengthy process ended in 2004 with the Council agreeing with that view. The charter remains unratified despite promises of constitutional change by President Hollande.

France’s history of linguistic policy demonstrates the devastating impact that the law can have on the survival of minority languages. It also shows us the constraints of the law’s ability to prevent the inevitable happening. As the notion of the borderless world takes hold, languages will continue to expand, contract and die. The future ability of the law to interfere with language evolution is minimal at best.

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