Linguistic diversity in Macron’s France

by Daniel McAuley

June's parliamentary elections in France were a great success for the burgeoning centrist movement founded by Emmanuel Macron with his year-old party La République en marche (LREM) securing 308 seats in the National Assembly, an outright majority in the lower house.

Scarcely has the question of France's national identity been more prominent than it has in this year's presidential and parliamentary elections. France's national identity is steeped in the symbolism of the Revolution and a central tenet of that identity is equality. Much of the current debate around national identity in France centres on what the conception of that equality should be: uniform and fixed, or plural and diverse. And it is there that the question turns to language.

Alongside the national motto, "liberté, egalité, fraternité", the colours of the national flag and the national anthem, the French language appears in Article 2 of the current constitution. The French language is therefore explicitly enshrined as a symbol of the nation and the State.

French territory is in fact quite linguistically diverse. There are two fairly distinct elements in that diversity: languages of migration and regional and minority languages. The second group has been more vocal in French politics in its claim for recognition, and has seen some measure of success, so it will be the focus of this post. When the clause instituting French as the language of the Republic was adopted in 1992 (added to the constitutional amendment ratifying the Maastricht Treaty), the parliamentary debate largely related to what this would mean for the status of France's regional and minority languages. Some MPs suggested that a recognition of the value of such languages be mentioned in the clause. Eventually, in 2008 (piggybacking on another constitutional amendment), wording to that effect was added to the constitution, not quite so prominently, as article 75-1. That article, in a somewhat lacklustre way, acknowledges regional and minority languages as "belonging to the heritage of France". This phrasing emphasises the historical presence of regional languages – it sets them, to my mind, somewhere in the past, cast aside on the path that led to an ideal, unified francophone nation – and appears not particularly to view them as living methods of communication for multilingual French citizens.

Macron's discourse on the matter during the presidential campaign uses the language of linguistic diversity, but doesn't stray far from the constitutional position. At a rally in Pau in the Occitan-speaking heartland of Béarn he said quite judiciously that "France is held together by its language [French]... but this indivisible France is plural, it has other languages. It has its beautiful regional languages… that I wish to recognise, and that we will recognise. It has all of these languages… which must be able to live in the Republic, without threatening the French language in the slightest, but rather making our diversity and richness shine forth."

Certainly these are positive statements for minority-language speakers, and they suggest a conception of equality in Macron's France that accepts linguistic diversity, albeit with the view that French is a central constant in that diversity. What these comments lack are clear implications for policy or institutional support, and although 'recognition' of minority languages makes it into his manifesto, his stated intention to ratify the European Charter for Regional and Minority Languages (ECRML) is more consequential for minority language speakers. He spoke very frankly on the language question during a campaign visit to Corsica: "The language of the Republic is French: that is written in our constitution and it should not change. But in Corsica… it's a fact: people don't just speak French. The Corsican language is present in Corsicans' hearts, in their daily lives… And that's why I want to encourage learning the Corsican language and culture from primary school onwards. And that's also why I intend to start the ratification process of the ECRML if I am elected president."

Now he has been. And with a parliamentary majority to support him, the ECRML has as clear a route as ever before to ratification in France. The stumbling block in the past has been at the level of constitutional law rather than political will, however, and in 2014 a proposed constitutional amendment which would have provided for ratification of the Charter passed through the Assembly with a healthy majority, but was rejected in the Senate on the grounds that parts of the Charter were incompatible with the constitution's definition of equality in favouring minority language speakers, and in challenging that hallowed 25-year-old clause that defined the national language.  

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