Current Affairs Politics

Brittany And Europe’s “Rogue State” – France

France prides itself on being a nation that embodies the principles of democracy and freedom with a republic born through bloody, revolutionary struggle (and not once but several times). It is part and parcel of its collective image of itself; and one that it tries to project to the world. In the minds of many French citizens the national motto says it all: liberté, égalité, fraternité.

But those fine words, and sentiments, only extend so far. And not to those the French share their national territory with. Or rather those they have unwillingly incorporated into their national territory. From a report by al Jazeera:

“When Tangi Louarn casts his vote in next month’s French presidential election he will be forced to do so in a language that he does not recognise as his own.

A resident of the rugged peninsula region of Brittany in northwestern France, Louarn is one of about 200,000 speakers of Breton, once the world’s most commonly spoken Celtic language but now recognised as severely endangered by UNESCO.

Despite its precarious situation, Breton has no formal status in France. It is not offered as a language of education in the public school system, the state makes no provision for regional language media, and it is not used in government or public services.

Once home to a vibrant multitude of tongues, the monolingualism of modern France is enshrined in article two of the country’s constitution, rooted in the revolutionary principles of 1789, which reads: “The language of the Republic shall be French.”

Yet Louarn, the president of Kevre Breizh, a Breton language activist group, says that regional language speakers are still waiting for their human rights to to be respected.

“Breton is my language. It is a part of my identity. Yet ‘Liberte, eternite, fraternite’ is only for people speaking French. When you speak another language you do not have equality.”

While estimates of exact numbers vary, campaigners say there are more than five million people in France with fluency in a regional language.

On March 31, regional language speakers in 10 cities across France will stage the country’s largest ever co-ordinated demonstrations to protest for their linguistic rights to be recognised.

Their demands include a change to the constitution to grant official status to regional languages, measures to make the languages “co-official” in the areas where they are spoken, and for France to ratify the European Charter for Regional and Minority Languages.

Davyth Hicks, the head of the European Language Equality Network (ELEN), a Brussels-based NGO, said that France was one of only a handful of states in Europe not to have ratified the charter, which is considered the key legislation protecting and promoting linguistic diversity across the continent.

While neighbours such as the UK and Spain grant co-official status to languages such as Welsh, Basque, Catalan and Galician, Hicks said France remained a “pariah”.

“France is a rogue state in terms of how it promotes its languages. It just has not kept up with European development. It says all these things about the promotion of human rights and equality elsewhere in the world, but meanwhile, on its doorstep, languages such as Breton have become seriously endangered,” Hicks said.

But while regional languages were once actively suppressed, with children as recently as the mid-20th century facing punishment for speaking them in the schoolyard or classroom, Marliere said there had been a relaxation of attitudes in recent decades.

Nowadays, for instance, language is promoted as part of Brittany’s culture, with bilingual street signs and private schools offering a Breton education for parents who want their children to learn the language, while many residents take pride in the Celtic heritage that sets their region apart from the rest of France.

With a majority of Breton speakers now in their 80s and with few young people learning the language, he said the state needed to take urgent measures, including full constitutional recognition and subsequent investment in public education, regional language media and public services, to reverse the decline.

“All regional languages in France are in danger. They could disappear as social languages. Perhaps they can stay in museums, but not in real life. In Brittany in the middle of the 20th century there were a million people who spoke Breton; now there are 200,000. So the number is going down because of the policy of the state,”  Louarn said.”

For more on the demonstrations held across France on the 31st see here and here. You can read more about the Breton struggle to gain official recognition from the French for their language and culture (not to mention their nationhood) here. And there is also the cause of the partition of Brittany by France. Sound familiar?

4 comments on “Brittany And Europe’s “Rogue State” – France

  1. 1n 1880 only 52% of the population of France had French as their language. 39% of the population spoke Occitan as well as the Breton speakers in Brittany. France’s treatment of minority languages is similar to the attitude of most empires – One language,therefore One people. In Wales and Ireland we know that this is not true. Whether a language is spoken by the majority or minority is irrelevant to the importance of that language. As Emrys ap Iwan said about Wales over a hundred years ago,’Heb Iaith, Heb Galon’ (Without a language, Without a heart’). There is a group trying to revitalise Occitan in the south of France and I hope that efforts to provide some legal status to the Breton language are successful.

  2. Proinsias

    As a French person, I agree with the general sentiment expressed in the article and commentary. I suppose the history of the country, as correctly pointed out in the piece, is at the heart of the notion that there should be one language only to cement national unity. This is also why, as far as I know, there are no state statistics on religion or ethnicity ¬– all seen to be potentially divisive. The concept of “communautarisme” (a derogatory buzz word which pretty much translates as “sectarianism”) is anathema to the French who often use it to attack the “Anglo-Saxon” societal model. Many French people are, indeed, absurdly convinced that they have managed to avoid ghettoising society in the way that Northern Europe and English-speaking countries allegedly have… A ridiculous claim if race riots in suburban French ghettoes are anything to go by. Anyway: rightly or wrongly, French people are genuinely convinced that diversity breeds divisions. This is why they have bulldozed all forms of linguistic diversity, although attitudes have changed a lot since the 1970s, as noted in your article.
    Incidentally, it is not just minority languages that are sometimes frowned upon in France: foreign accents can be too, as Norwegian-born presidential candidate Eva Joly found out recently when an entire article was written by a journalist in the form of pseudo-quotes attributed to her, all transcribed to convey a Norwegian accent (caricatured as German, in fact). Disgracefully, German fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld, whose German accent when speaking French is just as broad, deemed it appropriate to criticise her diction too!
    Her response was very witty, with a video featuring various regional/Québec French accents. You can view it here:
    The punchline: “Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite”… Yes, the acute accents are missing. Hence the clever line: “France, without accents, doesn’t make sense”!

    • Great video link. Thank you.

      I wonder if Belgium finally staged a “velvet divorce” of its own and the Francophone Wallons sought a union with France, how would the French state react? Would it tolerate an autonomous, Francophone state-within-a-state? Or would it demand full integration? And if did grant a quasi-federal status to Wallonia how would the pre-existing regions of France react?

      I suspect some in the French state must be wary of any dissolution of the Kingdom of Belgium and a possible demand for union from Wallonia. Though of course both possibilities remain unlikely.

      Multiculturalism versus Uniculturalism is the nightmare contest of contemporary European societies and nations since both propositions have such obvious strengths and weaknesses. Perhaps it is that our heart is attracted towards multiculturalism but our brain advises uniculturalism? Or is it the other way around? In all other areas of life diversity is good: except in some aspects of Human society.

      It seems that in modern Europe we can be diverse in sexuality, religion, race, politics, ideology, class and wealth but the fundamentals (language, culture, “ethnicity”) need to be held in common for the nation-state and its society to function successfully. Or at least that is how it can sometimes appear.

      All I can say is that day by day one can see Ireland becoming simply another European “Bradford”. Is that good or bad?

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