The French government’s U-turn on regional languages

Screenshot of a YouTube video showing protests in the Basque Country in support of immersive teaching

France's language policy has long placed French as the only “language of the Republic” and has ignored or even banned the use of more than 20 minority languages spoken across the country. Fast forward to the 21st century, attitudes have changed thanks to a renewed interest in regional cultures, as well as certain legislative measures. The debate has been reignited by a new law passed in May of this year, which aims to protect France's regional languages.

The new legislation, entitled the May 21 2021 Law intended to protect and promote regional languages. Also known as the Molac Law, named after the MP Paul Molac who spearheaded the bill, the legislation encourages certain advances in the use of regional languages. The bill recognises the overall importance of these languages by firstly awarding them the status of “national treasure” and, secondly, supporting the teaching of regional languages. The bill even obliges local authorities “to contribute to the tuition costs of private schools that offer bilingual education.”

However, the law also has a number of faults and continues to discriminate against speakers of regional languages in two areas: immersive teaching and the use of diacritics (a mark added to a letter indicating a change in pronunciation) specific to regional languages in identity documents.

In France, immersive teaching involves placing young children in a learning environment in which almost all subjects are taught in the target language. For example, history or mathematics are taught in Breton or Basque. There are currently 14,000 children who receive this type of education in France. This represents 0.1 percent of all French pupils, though this figure is steadily increasing.

Brittany led the way by creating the first Diwan schools in 1977, which offer bilingual education in more than 50 schools across the region. This was followed by the Calandreta schools, bilingual schools in southern France that teach in Occitan, as well as other schools for languages such as Alsatian, Corsican and Basque. These are recognised as community schools and are funded by the State and by the pupils’ families. The schools follow a curriculum approved by France's Ministry of Education and have the status of “contracted private education,” a category that most private Catholic schools also fall under.

In the final drafting of the 21 May Law, the Constitutional Council justified its rejection of immersive teaching in regional languages by referring to Article 2 of the French Constitution, which states that “the language of the French Republic is French.”

One nation, one language

For the French state, centralisation is a fundamental part of its identity, and it includes the role of the French language.

French is a Romance language derived from Latin. In the Middle Ages, Latin evolved into two language groups spoken in the territory of present-day France: the langues d'oc (Occitan languages) spoken in the south and the langues d'oïl (Oïl languages) spoken in the north.

In 1539, the Ordinance of Villers-Cotterêts, signed into law by Francis I of France, was the first document to declare that French should be used instead of Latin as the official language of all public documents. Although French initially remained a minority language that coexisted alongside other languages, it gradually became the dominant and exclusive language in all areas of public life: governance, case law, education, commerce, religion, literature and media.

In the 19th century, the education system began to reinforce this rejection of regional languages, in particular when the then minister of education, Jules Ferry, banned the use of regional languages in schools under the threat of punishment. State schools across the country displayed signs with the now famous phrase: “No spitting on the ground or speaking Breton” (or Basque, Occitan or any other regional language).

Linguistic diversity in sharp decline

Today a government department, the General Delegation for the French language and the languages of France (DGLFLF), is in charge of all the languages spoken in France. The DGLFLF divides all languages other than French into three categories: regional languages spoken in mainland France, non-territorial languages such as Yiddish, Romani or sign language, and the more than 50 languages of France's overseas territories that includes Kanak, Tahitian, and Creole.

The 23 officially recognised regional languages represent France's great linguistic diversity. These include Romance (Catalan, Corsican, Occitan, Franco-Provençal), Germanic (Flemish, Alsatian), Celtic (Breton) and non-Indo-European languages such as Basque.

However, even though these languages were the mother tongues of millions of French people up until the 19th century, today the number of speakers of these languages is estimated at 2 million, or just under 3 percent of the population of mainland France. For this reason, the State must take action to curb this decline and encourage a diversity-based linguistic revival.

An ever-changing policy that seems to routinely oppose the recognition of language plurality and defend French

Nevertheless, the French state maintains an ambiguous position on the subject of regional languages, oscillating between linguistic diversity and an overprotection of the French language. In 1992, the French state was keen to amend the constitution of the Fifth Republic to stipulate for the first time the official status of the French language, cited in the aforementioned Article 2, in order to protect the French language which was seemingly at risk from an increased use of English.

What's more, France has signed but refuses to ratify the 39 articles of the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, citing once again a contradiction with Article 2 of its constitution. This 1992 Council of Europe treaty aims to safeguard linguistic diversity in Europe and includes “the need for resolute action to promote regional or minority languages in order to safeguard them; the facilitation and/or encouragement of the oral and written use of regional or minority languages in public and private life; the provision of adequate resources and means for the teaching and study of regional or minority languages at all appropriate stages.”

During the 2008 constitutional revision, France's constitution was amended to include these languages. The new Article 75-1 stated that “regional languages form part of France’s heritage.” In this regard, the only area that has seen a relative commitment from the state is the financial assistance given to radio and TV programs, which are in addition to private initiatives, mainly for Alsatian, Basque, Breton, Corsican and Occitan.

Demonstrations and the Constitutional Council's backtracking

In May, following the enactment of the 21 May Law, many demonstrations took place throughout France to condemn the censorship of immersive teaching, which largely depends on financial support from the State. Petitions have been launched citing that Article 2 of the constitution was created and presented as a method of protecting the French language against English. It should be noted that many French-English bilingual schools in France practice language immersion and do not seem to be subject to this law.

The activists also recall that the French President Emmanuel Macron had defended regional languages on 26 May and clearly opposed the Constitutional Council's decision. The Council later responded to this on 16 June by clarifying that immersive teaching is unconstitutional only in state education, but permitted in the private sector.

Activists are now focusing on the definition of the term ‘community school,’ as it could be interpreted that these types of schools also belong to the public sector. This game of political and legislative ping pong therefore looks set to continue. It remains to be seen whether students who speak Alsatian, Basque, Breton, Corsican or Occitan will be able to learn in these languages once they return to school on 2 September.

1 comment

  • Shasta Miller

    Another silly thing about this ruling is that declares any immersion education unconstitutional in France–American upper-middle-class would cringe in horror to realize that even Mandarin-immersion or Spanish immersion is not legal. Forget all the proven benefits of bilingualism.

    Dumber than that, a strict reading of the law says that it is unconstitutional to teach deaf children via the medium of French Sign Language. It’s gotta be French only!

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