France’s regional languages fight for parity

Breton village

The French language has long been held sacred in France, which has led hard feelings among groups within the country whose first tongue is something other than the lingua franca.

France is home to more than 2 million individuals who speak regional languages such as Alsatian, Breton and Corsican, but the French government has refused to change its constitution, which states that “the language of the Republic is French.”

So while France actually signed the European Charter of Regional and Minority Languages – adopted in 1992 under the auspices of the Council of Europe to protect and promote historical regional and minority languages in Europe – the French government has never ratified it.

As a result, the nation’s regional languages have failed to receive support required by the charter.

In fact, the policies of the Paris government have had the deliberate effect of greatly weakening the prevalence of native languages in France that are not “French.”

The second-class status afford languages other than French has not set well in regions where regional tongues are still prevalent, such as Brittany, the Basque country and Corsica.

Earlier this year, French lawmakers reopened the long-standing debate over the issue of France and its apparent refusal to accept its regional languages, according to the Cornwall Republican blog.

Map showing different languages spoken in France.

Map showing different languages spoken in France. Click to embiggen.

But again ratification of the European Charter of Regional and Minority Languages seems unlikely because it contradicts the unwritten notion that the French Republic is singular, indivisible and must have only one language.

“The regions interest the country’s leaders, but only from a cultural point of view, as a place to visit as a tourist,” according to Yann An Aod, a leader of Kelc’h Sevenadurel Gwened, a Breton cultural promotion group.

For An Aod the current debate is somewhat hypocritical. France seeks to promote its language throughout the world, he said, but barely lifts a finger to protect its own cultural diversity at home.

“In France we are told we must have one center of power and only one language, it’s that way of thinking,” he said.

The strong grassroots support for regional languages saw tens of thousands of protesters take to the streets in 2012 calling for Paris to ratify a charter, which most other European countries have been happy to adopt.

Germany, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom are among the 25 nations that have ratified that pact. France is among a handful of other nations, including Italy and Russia, which have not gone beyond the largely symbolic act of adding their signature.

The problem for speakers of Breton, Basque, Alsatian and the like is that the same barrier remains in place. France’s top legal advisor, the counsel of state, said in March 2013 that the charter would introduce “a fundamental inconsistency into the constitution.”

(Top: Breton Village, by Odilon Redon, 1890.)

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8 thoughts on “France’s regional languages fight for parity

  1. The central state opposition to the use of minority languages was at its strongest in the 1880s…the defeat of 1871 having given impetus to the idea of a homogenous state….but in the twentieth century things became more relaxed.
    The Loi Deixonne of 1951 allowed for classes in regional languages to be offered in state schools…a proposal enlarged – at least in Brittany – in 1978 in the Cultural Charter for Brittany giving the possibility of studying Breton at much greater depth and for longer in the education system.

    The argument frequently produced to justify the failure to ratify the Regional and Minority Languages Charter is how do you separate a language from a regional dialect…

    And as to that i can give my own evidence…having been taught French and reading, if not speaking it, to a high standard when I moved to rural France I found I could not understand most of what my elderly neighbours were saying.
    Pure patois…or was it a regional language?

    • Yes, we have Gullah along the South Carolina coast, and it was once argued that it was nothing more than a pidgin dialect, but it’s been found to be a distinct creole language. I suppose many distinct languages began as regional dialects and developed into disparate tongues.

  2. Ironically in the matter of indigenous minorities the modern British state is positively enlightened when compared to its French counterpart, though perhaps it had a lot more to make up for, historically speaking. Collective guilt can be a wonderful thing. Or terrible as the Native American nations know.

    I’ll ignore the British treatment of Irish-speakers in the north-east of Ireland. As usual the “first and last colony” is subject to different rules.

    The outrage in the French media when Sarkozy was ran off the streets by Basque protestors in 2012 was something to behold. Though their favourite target remains the Corsicans. The average French person discussing Corsica sounds like Rush Limbaugh discussing Latino-Americans. Though rather less polite! 😉

    • Amazing, isn’t it? The comment that the one individual made about France wanting to promote its language throughout the world, but does what it can at home to squelch other regional tongues is incredibly ironic. What is it about another language being spoken at home that gets the world’s major powers so up in arms?

  3. I was reading this feeling quite smug regarding Spain, because you do see four languages on products in the supermarket shelves, castilian spanish, catalan, galician and euskara (basque). I don’t know what happens in the actual provinces re education and official business, but I remember seeing signs for food written in catalan.

    Partner started learning welsh at school, but then they stopped it. After he left they started it again.

    Here in Gib everyone learns to read and write English at school, but usually learns to speak Spanish/llanito at home with the family. Not all read and write it though.

    • We’re too busy with politicians pushing to make English the official language to ever get any genuine bilingual education efforts underway in most of the US. But, on the other hand, in some states, our ballots will be printed in myriad languages.

      I understand that it would be nice if all citizens could understand the issues they’re voting on – hence, the idea of printing ballots in various languages – but it’s terribly costly and not very efficient.

      As for making English our official language, I see it as more political posturing. We’re a hopelessly unilingual country. Most US citizens speak only one language. Recent immigrants speak two or sometimes more, but their children often learn only English, which is unfortunate.

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