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France/ 4.2 Specific policy issues and recent debates  

4.2.5 Language issues and policies

French is the only official, national, administrative and daily language of the French Republic, as stated in the article 2 of the Constitution. In 1994, the law n 94-665 relative to the use of the French language, the "Toubon Law", was promulgated to protect the French linguistic heritage, with three main objectives:

  • enrichment of the language;
  • obligation to use the French language; and
  • advocacy of French as the language of the Republic.

French, the official language of the French Republic, acts as a cohesive element throughout France but is also an international communication language. In 2014, a report to the President of Republic ( estimates that there are 211 million French-speaking people living in the countries where French is an official language and in the countries were at least 20% of the population can read, speak and write French. French-speaking people living in non French-speaking countries represent 16 million people. Thus, the French-speaking community (Francophonie) ranks as the 6th geopolitical space in terms of population and could become the 4th one around 2050. In total, French-speaking countries and Francophile countries represent 16% of world GDP with an average growth rate of 7%, and hold around 14% of the world mining and energy reserves. In the face of the mainly English-speaking globalisation, the advocacy of the French language and its on-going use as an international language, allows for the promotion of multilinguism and cultural diversity. Accordingly, the Toubon law advocates the use of French terms instead of English ones. Some French-speaking communities are particularly active in this domain, such as the Province of Quebec in Canada. A Semaine de la langue française et de la francophonie (Week of French language and Francophonie) takes place every year in France around 20th March, the International Day of the Francophonie. It gives the public the opportunity to celebrate the French language in its diversity and richness.

The place of regional and foreign languages has become an issue of cultural diversity, which is supported by France and OIF. This diversity is a fundamental rule of everyday life: diversity of current consumption goods (food, clothes, design), and diversity of populations and the public. The amount of foreign works and products is considerable - in music, cinema, visual arts, literature, etc. Diversity in the "atmosphere" (ambiance) of a district or a marketplace can also be an asset from which the whole city can benefit, in particular from a tourism point of view.

These social evolutions led France to reconsider a historically firm position on the exclusive place of French as the official language of the Republic, which originated with an edict of King François Ier in 1539, the Ordinance of Villers-Cotterêts. Today public authorities favour the learning of the regional languages (of mainland France and overseas territories), and of the foreign languages relative to immigration (Arabic, Portuguese, Italian, Spanish, languages of Asia or Central Europe for example). These languages are taught in the various levels of education and can be programmed in the exams of the Baccalauréat (end of secondary education diploma) (see chapter 8.3.3). In spite of the rather supplementary role of these languages in the public primary and secondary education system, there is a dynamic in higher education (with specific academic chairs and research), in associative or private schools that can be subsidised, in the circles of scholars or specialists: regional channels, calendettes (Occitan schools), Corsican and Breton schools, teaching of overseas languages, etc.

The main body that conducts linguistic policy in France is, within the Ministry of Culture, the General Delegation for the French Language and Languages of France (DGLFLF). Its missions are to:

  • guarantee French citizens the use of the French language;
  • enable the French language to serve social unity;
  • enrich and modernise the French language;
  • promote linguistic diversity; and
  • promote and enhance the languages of France.

The DGLFLF assists the Conseil supérieur de la langue française (CSLF, Supreme Council of the French Language) which, as in several French-speaking countries, is in charge of advising the government on the questions linked to the French language. The Council is chaired by the Prime Minister. The DGLFLF also supports and co-ordinates the various bodies that participate in the establishment of neologisms (Commission générale de terminologie et de néologie, Académie française, specialised committees, partner ministries, etc.) and is responsible for making them available to the public.  It collaborates with the departments of the Ministry of Culture, in particular with the General Directorate of Media and Cultural Industries (DGMIC) that comprises the department of Books and Reading. The Regional Directorates of Cultural Affairs contribute to awareness-raising activities, in particular as regards multilingualism and the welcoming of foreign tourists.

The Public Information Library at the Georges Pompidou Centre, in Paris, proposes learning methods in more than 120 languages. Major media libraries in the regions also have such devices. Radio France Internationale (RFI) also proposes devices of French learning, in French and in the language of the learners.

A large number of festivals, meetings or forums of languages take place every year on the whole territory. Cultural feasts supported by the territorial authorities and the Regional Cultural Affairs Directorates, activities on literature, cinema and digital technology, live performances, exhibitions of visual arts and architecture, heritage exhibitions, allow a better encounter of cultures.

In 2011, the Ministry set up Wikilf: this web-device that can be accessed via the portal and allows any Internet user to participate in the enrichment of the French language.

Languages of France

Amongst the hundreds of languages present in France, the languages of France refer to those languages that have been spoken by French citizens on French soil for long enough to belong to the common heritage, and which are not the official language of any other State, including « regional » languages such as Flemish, Basque, Corsican, Creole and Tahitian, and non-territorial minority languages such as the Arabic dialects, Romany, Berber and Yiddish.

In this framework, one can distinguish between regional and non-territorial languages:

  • regional languages are languages that have been spoken in some parts of the country longer than French; and
  • non-territorial languages are languages associated with immigration, but have for a long time been in use by significant numbers of French people. They include in particular dialects of Arabic, western Armenian, Berber, Judeo-Spanish, Romani and Yiddish. In addition to these, there is LSF or French sign language. To be recognised as "languages of France", these non-territorial languages must not have any official status in any other country.

According to the 1999 census, 26% of adults living in France learned a language other than French from their parents (often at the same time as French). In half of these cases, the languages concerned are regional; the other half is languages of immigrants. Scarcely 35% of these adults have passed this second language on to their own children: the languages of France are only rarely transmitted through families today. So their dynamism depends especially on their teaching and on their creativity in the artistic domain today.

In 1999, France signed 39 articles of the European Charter of Regional or Minority Languages, of the 98 of the text, but without ratifying them because the Constitutional Council considered that this charter contains incompatible clauses with the article 2 of the Constitution. Furthermore, France accompanied its signature of a Declaration that stipulates the obligatory use of the French language by all government departments, public services and users, that the teaching of regional and minority languages be optional, and that all official versions of legislative texts be published in French. However, the constitutional revision in 2008 added article 75-1 of the Constitution which recognises the patrimonial value of regional languages: "regional languages belong to the heritage of France".

In the optics of this article 75-1, General States on Multilingualism Overseas (États généraux du multilinguisme dans les outre-mer) was organised in Cayenne in December, 2011 on the initiative of the Ministry of Culture and the Ministry in charge of overseas territories. The Declaration of Cayenne that was adopted on this occasion aims at setting up a linguistic and training offer to meet the expectations of the populations and to value their cultural resources.

Chapter published: 17-07-2018

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