Compared to its neighbours, France has not shown much interest in its many territorial or ‘regional’ languages, and several are at risk of dying out.
Mindful of this, a French MP from Brittany, Paul Molac, drafted a law to address the risk, the “Bill for the Protection and Promotion of Regional Languages”, and after over a year of wrangling between the two houses of the French Assembly, it was finally adopted with an overwhelming majority of over two-thirds in April this year.
But the French government and in particular Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer, are not in favour of this law and referred it to the country’s Constitutional Council which, early in July, promptly ruled two provisions of the law - immersion teaching and the acceptance of non-French diacritical marks in names - as unconstitutional.
In response, 125 French MPs and senators wrote an open letter to President Emmanuel Macron calling for a change to the constitution to “enable the promotion, preservation and passing on of regional languages to be secured once and for all”.
Last week, the NGO European Language Equality Network (ELEN) an umbrella organisation for 166 lesser-used language associations and its French members, launched a formal complaint to the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Minorities because it believes that the Council’s decision represents discrimination against territorial languages and their speakers, infringes on children’s rights and is in breach of several UN treaties that protect minoritised language rights.
Commenting, French MEP Younous Omarjee, told the Parliament Magazine, “The Constitutional Court's decision to censor the law on regional languages unfortunately comes in a poisonous atmosphere in France, where the government has decided, through its speeches on ‘separatism’, to make minorities and diversity the enemies of the republic.”
“The [French Government] seem to have weaponised Article 2 to attack territorial languages with; that’s unacceptable. Those languages are as much part of the territory of France as French is” European Language Equality Network (ELEN) Secretary General, Davyth Hicks
Omarjee, a member of the European Parliament’s Intergroup for Traditional Minorities, National Communities and Languages continued, “The Molac law had the merit of allowing the enhancement of all cultural heritage and the better teaching of regional languages, including Creole languages in the overseas territories, without however attaining the status of official language of French.”
In 1992, fearing a creeping takeover of English and worries about the prevalence of immigrant languages, Article 2 of the French constitution was amended to simply state: “the language of the Republic is French.”
But, argues ELEN Secretary General, Davyth Hicks, interpreting this in the way the Constitutional Council seems to have done, amounts to sounding the death knell to many territorial languages.
“They seem to have weaponised Article 2 to attack territorial languages with; that’s unacceptable. Those languages are as much part of the territory of France as French is.”
“Sadly, for many territorial languages intergenerational transmission declined after World War II for various reasons, but primarily because they were discriminated against. Many of these languages now rely on immersion language teaching for their survival. For a state to be so hostile to them is completely against European values.”
A French government report from 1999 identified 75 territorial languages that would qualify to be recognised under the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages - which France is yet to ratify: 24 on the European mainland and 51 in overseas areas of the French Republic. Many of them are older than the official language, notably Breton and Basque.
“The Constitutional Court's decision to censor the law on regional languages unfortunately comes in a poisonous atmosphere in France, where the government has decided, through its speeches on ‘separatism’, to make minorities and diversity the enemies of the republic” French Gue/NGL MEP Younous Omarjee
Sandro Gozi, an Italian politician who is now representing President Macron’s party as an MEP in the European Parliament’s Renew Group, believes that the problem with the law is a financial one.
He told the Parliament Magazine: “It’s a complicated issue. But I believe the law’s provision that the home commune of a pupil has to pay for the immersion education, even if the school providing it is in another commune, is problematic.”
For Gozi, who is a member of a group led by prominent French academic Christian Lequesne, currently drafting a paper on multilingualism for the forthcoming French Presidency of the European Council, the principle of linguistic diversity is paramount to European values. What the Molac law wants to achieve is, for him, undisputable.
“The promotion and protection of traditional regional languages is essential, and not at all in conflict with French republican values. As we want to promote a more multilingual approach in Europe, we must also promote cultural and linguistic diversity in France.”
A view echoed by fellow MEP Omarjee, who added, “In view of developments elsewhere in the world, it is important today, even more than before, to think of France in all its diversity, and to develop all channels for the promotion of the various cultures that make up France's wealth.”
“We will be attentive to future developments around this law, which has certainly come up against an initial obstacle, but whose principle must eventually prevail.”
The reaction of the UN Special Rapporteur on Minorities to the ELEN complaint, that will remind France of the UN Treaties that it has signed up to, as well as the paper on multilingualism being prepared for the French Presidency and due to be published in September, should keep the issue in focus not only in France but across the European Union.