Language policy in France

Language policy in France

France has one official language, the French language. The French government does not regulate the choice of language in publications by individuals but the use of French is required by law in commercial and workplace communications. In 2006 a French subsidiary of a US company was fined €500,000 plus an ongoing fine of €20,000 per day for providing software and related technical documentation to its employees in the English language only. See the Toubon Law. In addition to mandating the use of French in the territory of the Republic, the French government tries to promote French in the European Union and globally through institutions such as La Francophonie. The perceived threat from anglicisation has prompted efforts to safeguard the position of the French language in France.

Besides French, there exist many other vernacular minority languages of France, both in the metropolitan territory of continental Europe and in the French overseas territories. These languages have no official status. The 1999 report written for the French government by Bernard Cerquiglini identified 75 languages that would qualify for recognition under the government's proposed ratification of the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. Currently, that charter is only signed but not ratified.

A revision of the French constitution creating official recognition of regional languages was implemented by the Parliament in Congress at Versailles in July 2008.


The Ordinance of Villers-Cotterêts of 1539 made French the administrative language of the kingdom of France for legal documents and laws. Previously, official documents were written in medieval Latin, which was the language used by the Roman Catholic Church.

Académie française

The Académie française was established in 1635 to act as the official authority on the usages, vocabulary, and grammar of the French language, and to publish an official dictionary of the French language. Its recommendations however carry no legal power and are sometimes disregarded even by governmental authorities. In recent years the Académie has tried to prevent the Anglicisation of the French language.

French Revolution

Prior to the French Revolution of 1789, French kings did not take a strong position on the language spoken by their subjects. However, in sweeping away the old provinces, parlements and laws, the Revolution established a unified system of administration across the state. At first, the revolutionaries declared liberty of language for all citizens of the Republic; this policy was subsequently abandoned in favour of the imposition of a common language which was to do away with the other languages of France. Other languages were seen as keeping the peasant masses in obscurantism.

The new ideology was expounded in the Report on the necessity and means to annihilate the patois and to universalise the use of the French language. Its author, Henri Grégoire, deplored that France, the most advanced country in the world with regard to politics, had not progressed beyond the Tower of Babel as far as languages were concerned, and that only three million of the 25 million inhabitants of France spoke Parisian French as their native tongue.

The report resulted the same year in two laws which stated that the only language tolerated in France in public life and in schools would be French. Within two years, the French language had become the symbol of the national unity of the French State. However, the Revolutionaries lacked both time and money to implement a language policy.

Third Republic

In the 1880s, the Third Republic sought to modernize France, and in particular to increase literacy and general knowledge in the population, especially the rural population, and established free compulsory primary education. The choice of French for education seemed natural, given that it was the only language widely spoken in France in which a sizeable number of newspapers and historical, scientific etc. books were available.

The only language allowed in primary school was French. All other languages were forbidden, even in the schoolyard, and transgressions were severely punished. After 1918, the use of German in Alsace-Lorraine was outlawed. In 1925, Anatole de Monzie, Minister of public education, stated that "for the linguistic unity of France, the Breton language must disappear." As a result, the speakers of minority languages began to be shamed when using their own language – especially in the educational system – and over time, many families stopped teaching their language to their children and tried to speak only French with them.

Fourth Republic

The 1950s were also the first time the French state recognised the right of the regional languages to exist. A law allowed for the teaching of regional languages in secondary schools, and the policy of repression in the primary schools came to an end. The Breton language began to appear in the media during this time.

Fifth Republic

After the first few minutes on the radio in the 1940s, the French government allowed in 1964 for the first time one and a half minutes of Breton on regional television. But even in 1972, president Georges Pompidou declared that "there is no place for the regional languages and cultures in a France that intends to mark Europe deeply."

In 1992 the constitution was amended to state explicitly that French is the language of the republic.

The debate about the Council of Europe’s Charter for Regional or Minority Languages

In 1999 the Socialist government of Lionel Jospin signed the Council of Europe’s European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, but it was not ratified. The Constitutional Council of France declared that the implementation of the Charter would be unconstitutional since the Constitution states that the language of the Republic is French.

The European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages is a European convention (ETS 148) adopted in 1992 under the auspices of the Council of Europe to protect and promote historical regional and minority languages in Europe, ratified and implemented by 17 States, but not by France (as of 2007).

The charter contains 98 articles of which signatories must adopt a minimum of 35 (France signed 39).

The signing, and the failure to have it ratified, provoked a public debate in French society over the charter.

One argument against was the fear of the break-up of France "one and indivisible" leading to the threat of "babelism", "balkanization" and then ethnic separatism if the charter were to be implemented, and that therefore there should be only one language recognised in the French state: the French language. This was also linked to a wider debate about how power should be apportioned between the national and local governments.

Another was that in an era where a widely spoken language like French was threatened with becoming irrelevant in the global arena, especially in economic, technical and scientific contexts, officially supporting regional languages was a mere waste of government resources.

As an example of what proponents of ratification considered racist and scornful, here is a sample quote from an article in Charlie Hebdo, a well-known satirical journal:

The aborigines are going to be able to speak their patois, oh sorry, their language, without being laughed at. And even keep their accent, that is their beret and their clogs.

Likewise, President Jacques Chirac, putting an end to the debate, argued that it would threaten "the indivisibility of the Republic," "equality in front of the Law" and "the unity of the French people," since it may end by conferring "special rights to organised linguistic communities."

France, Andorra and Turkey are the only European countries that have not yet signed the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities. This framework entered into force in 1998 and is now nearly compulsory to implement in order to be accepted in the European Union, which implies France would not qualify for EU entry were it to apply for membership now.

Endangered languages

Excluding the languages spoken in the régions d'outre-mer and other overseas territories, and the languages of recent immigrants, the following languages are spoken by sizeable minorities in France:

The non-French Oïl languages and Franco-Provençal are highly endangered. The other languages are still spoken but are all considered endangered.

In the 1950s, more than one million people spoke Breton as their main language. The countryside in western Brittany was still overwhelmingly Breton-speaking. Today, about 250,000 people are able to speak Breton (one-sixth of the population in region), most of whom are elderly. Other regional languages have generally followed the same pattern; Alsatian and Corsican have resisted better, while Occitan has followed a still-worse trend.

Accurate information on the state of language use is complicated by the non-recognition of regional languages and the inability of the state to ask language use questions in the census.

Since the rejection of ratification of the European Charter, French governments have offered token support to regional languages within the limits of the law. The Délégation générale à la langue française (General delegation of the French tongue) has acquired the additional function of observing and studying the languages of France and has had "et aux langues de France" (...and other languages of France) added to its title.

The French government hosted the first Assises nationales des langues de France in 2003, but this national round table on the languages of France served to highlight the contrast between cultural organisations and language activists on the one hand and the state on the other.

The decentralisation programme initiated by the Jean-Pierre Raffarin government has not extended to giving power in language policy to the regions.

Opposition to the language policy

France presents itself as a small country struggling for cultural diversity against the predominance of English in international affairs. According to French republican ideology (see also Laïcité), all citizens are equal and therefore no groups may exercise extra rights; this is an idea stemming from the French Revolution, contrasting with the previous situation in which many groups had special rights and privileges.

This policy of cultural homogeneity has been challenged from both the right wing and the left wing. In the 1970s, nationalist or regionalist movements emerged in regions such as Brittany and Occitania. Even though they remain largely minoritary, a web of schools teaching in France's regional languages sprung out, such as Diwan in Brittany, Ikastola in the Basque country, Calandreta in Occitania and Bressola in Northern Catalonia.

Teaching in regional languages is not supported by the state, despite popular demand asking for recognition of the regional languages. Though, for example in Bretagne, the regional government opens bilingual public schools as far as it is within the law. Other Breton education comes from catholic schools and private schools, Dihun and Diwan, respectively. Thus, today, only a small part of young Bretons (less than 12,000 as of 2007) have access to a course of Breton language during their time in school, but that number is growing.

A long campaign of defacing road signs led to the first bilingual road signs in the 1980s. These are now increasingly common in Brittany, because of the Ofis ar Brezhoneg placing many bilingual signs.

As far as the media are concerned, there is still little Breton to be found on the airwaves. But since 1982, a few Breton speaking radio stations have been created on an associative basis. The launching of the Breton TV Breizh is such an example of the Bretons want for a wider coverage of Breton.

There is some opposition to Loi Toubon mandating the use of French (or at least a translation into French) in commercial advertising and packaging, as well as in some other contexts.


  • WRIGHT (Sue), 2000, Jacobins, Regionalists and the Council of Europe’s Charter for Regional and Minority Languages, Journal of Multilingual and Multicural Development, vol. 21, n°5, p. 414-424.
  • KYMLICKA (Will), Les droits des minorités et le multiculturalisme: l’évolution du débat anglo-américain , in KYMLICKA (Will) et MESURE (Sylvie) dir., Comprendre les identités culturelles, Paris, PUF, Revue de Philosophie et de sciences sociales n°1, 2000, p. 141-171.
  • GEMIE, S. (2002), The politics of language : debates and identities in contemporary Brittany, French Cultural Studies n°13, p. 145-164.
  • SZULMAJSTER-CELNIKER (Anne), La politique de la langue en France, La Linguistique, vol 32, n°2, 1996, p. 35-63.

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