Can minority languages help win or lose elections?
A new law on regional languages is causing controversy within the presidential majority. A debate that could endanger some of Macron’s electoral strongholds.
After many years, a new law protects and promotes France’s regional languages. According to the government, six regional languages are still spoken: Alsatian-Franco-Moselle, Basque, Breton, Catalan, Corsican, and Occitan. There are also several overseas languages such as Tahitian, Creole or Wallisian, and Futuna.
The current constitution recognized only one language, French, until 2008, when the French Parliament revised it and added that
“[…] regional languages are part of the French heritage”.
But in 2011, the French Constitutional Court pointed out that the new article did not open the way to rights that could be opposed to individuals and communities. So nothing has changed.
France has also signed the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. But it refuses to ratify it. According to the French Constitutional Court, the text violates
“[…] the constitutional principles of the indivisibility of the Republic, equality before the law and the uniqueness of the French people”.
Therefore, in May last year, Parliament passed the long-awaited law, which is particularly important for teaching in schools. Today, about 170,000 of France’s 12 million students learn a regional language, which causes many problems. The government does not officially recognize regional languages. They can be taught, but these schools are run by associations. In public schools, students have to resort to electives. This is not without problems. Students can take their final exams in the regional language. But there is a big gap between them. For example, a native Basque speaker can easily take math and history/geography exams in Basque. But an Alsatian can only use his language during an optional oral exam.
The new law recognizes the national linguistic heritage, which consists of French and regional languages. It provides for the support of the state and local communities in the teaching, dissemination, and promotion of these languages. Municipalities can now provide financial assistance to students who wish to attend bilingual schools. It recognizes bilingual signage and authorizes public services to use translations of regional languages on public buildings, street signs, as well as in institutional communications. In addition, all diacritical marks in the regional language are now allowed in personal documents. This is, for example, the accent on the “i”, the “o” or the “u” in Catalan, or the tilde in Breton and Basque.
This is where the problems arose. 61 MP from Macron’s party submitted a statute for examination by the Constitutional Court. On May 21, France’s highest constitutional body partially censured the law. In their opinion, it contradicted Article 2 of the Constitution (“The language of the Republic is French”). The judges also censored the use of diacritical marks such as the tilde (~) in administrative documents. And the method of “language immersion”, in which two languages are used to teach a variety of subjects.
In the latter case, the controversy has been fierce. Some 14,000 students enrolled in institutions of national learning have been affected. And many of the President’s allies have come out in support of these schools. The leader of the center party Modem, François Bayrou, who defends the language of the Béarnais, warned that intensive learning schools were in danger of dying. Prime Minister Jean Castex, who speaks Catalan, has also taken steps to follow the story. Not to mention Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, Breton, and former president of the Brittany region. This is where Macron performed best in the 2017 presidential election.
For this reason, the president himself decided to intervene. He did so via Facebook, writing that
“[…] the languages of France are a national treasure”.
And praised the associations that have done this educational work.
Next year, France will hold presidential and legislative elections. And President Macron cannot afford to lose votes in areas that have remained loyal to him over time.