Winner of the 2019 Alternative Perspectives Competition, Sarah Greene writes about developments in the protection of the French language.

Alternative Perspectives Winner 2019: Legislating to Defend the French Language

Sarah Greene SS French and Spanish

In November 2018, at the 17th Summit of Francophonie, Ireland was welcomed into an 84-country organisation aimed primarily at promoting French language, Organisation International de la Francophonie (OIF). In the past, French governments and monarchies have endeavoured to ensure French linguistic hegemony, historically by protecting the language against internal and external threats, such as regional languages, colonial languages and more recently, English. As France is soon to be Ireland’s closest EU neighbour, linking Ireland to the French language is seemingly a direct result of Brexit. Yet, the OIF has been heavily criticised for using the organisation as a vehicle for promoting and protecting French and agreeing with stringent regulation of the French language, as French is synonymous with France and has long been tied to the centralization of power, yet France’s language laws have arguably impeded the natural development of French.


The French language regulations cover a variety of public domains such as business, the courts, schools and media. The most explicit laws date back Edicts of Villers-Cotterêts in 1539, which ensure solely French could be used in legal proceedings, including courts, judgements and legal documents, mirroring the Romans’ Latin language policy. While the initial aim of this law was to discontinue the use of Latin, in the 19th and 20th centuries it impeded the use and transmission of France’s regional languages. The 1994 Toubon Law, a more modern variation of a decree in 1794, establishes French as the only language to be used in commerce, public spaces, the media and public service, essentially, linguistic censorship occurs. As there is a requirement that the French language be used in all audio-visual content with some exceptions, additionally, a minimum quota-system exists for French songs on the radio. These laws are explicit in their intent, only French is permitted to be spoken and used in France. The Law Bas-Lauriol (1976) which stated that exclusively using foreign words/language in the supply and demand for goods is forbidden further supports this. The extent of these policies can be summed up by President Jacques Chirac’s refusal to amend an EU Charter on Regional and Minority languages, which meant regional language schools needed to remain private and get limited state funding. In 2015, the Senate refused to ratify this charter again. However, apropos of new technologies, French cannot develop specialized words as quickly as new technology is invented, therefore English words enter the French lexicon, such as "hotspot", and by the time France has decided the technology’s name (point d’enregistrement hotspot), the English word has entered the French lexicon.


Yet the Toubon Law is worded in sufficiently broad terms to avoid raising legal issue in regards to its application to the cyber-economy. However, the French courts do limit the application of the law to service providers in France, the French Supreme Court has concluded that the Toubon Law adheres to EU law. As if to underline the legal stance, emphasis on customer safety, such as information leaflets or manuals, is predominantly focused on. The ferociousness that France defends its language arguably impedes the natural modernization of the language.


Often, languages reflect their societies, yet as it is more common to see women in positions of power, and as acceptance for trans-genders grows, France’s language regulations become more outdated. The Académie Française (French Academy) has long been the lexical guardian of French, yet is often criticized for not allowing the French language to evolve. In regards to women in the workforce, government titles of “le ministre” (minister) and not “la” for example, Mme l’académicien is the title of a woman in the French Academy and is never feminized. As Minister of Women’s Rights in the 1980s, Yvette Roudy pioneered feminization of job titles, despite being mocked by the media, yet she was le ministre (minister). However, it is important to note that the more prestigious the job, the less likely the titular change occurred, ‘secretary’ is feminized but ‘Secretary of State’ does not change and remains masculine. Nowadays, efforts have switched from gender parity to gender-neutral language laws in order to include everyone in France, consequently, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe made gender neutral French illegal to use in official government documents. Comparatively, in Spanish, there has been a linguistic acceptance of gender-neutral terminology in the lexicon, and many politicians are starting to avoid perceived sexism in their speeches. Thus, while the French Academy is strongly against changes to the French language, to safeguard the language’s purity; trans-people, women and French citizens are campaigning for more inclusive language terms (currently French only has two options “he” or “she”, comparatively in English, “they” is used, but plural third person is not gender neutral in French). This has not stopped younger generations attempt to modernize the language themselves, from orthographical changes like écrivan·e·s (writer) to inventing their own pronouns (eul/ile). Additionally, street slang reflects France’s colonial history as Mahgreb loanwords frequently appear in younger generations’ lexicon, without being permitted by the rigid language legislation.


The French language has been treated by successive governments of the symbol of France, of national unity, and as a marker of the country’s identity. In 1992, French was reinforced in the Constitution (article 2) of its status of the language of the Republic. Yet, French history has proven that language laws will not impact most French people’s language use, rather the legislation is seen as a symbol of protection of the language of Molière. However, legislating in defence of French has arguably hindered the modernization of the language. The younger generations typically influence language change and modernization, as their language reflects their environment, which is usually different from the older members of the French Academy.

Leave a Reply