Historically, protecting minority languages has not been a priority of the French government. The French Constitution states that ““the language of the Republic is French.” According to UNESCO’s Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger, France is also home to 26 other language communities. In contrast to many other European countries today, in France there is no official recognition for these regional languages.
This weekend, language activists staged a series of protests to draw attention to the problem, as well as to force the French candidates for president to take a position on the issue of regional language recognition. The groups had two main demands: that France ratify the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages and amend its constitution to grant such languages official recognition in the regions where they are spoken.
However, as University College London Professor Philippe Marliere told Al Jazeera, they face a deep-seated opposition that dates back to the days of the French Revolution:
“The French revolutionaries wanted one regime over one territory, but they also thought that to make the unity of the nation a reality you needed one language. So language was an important element in the idea of building a French nation of equals and citizens.”
Marliere also told Al Jazeera that he doesn’t think the language activists will be able to change the constitution to provide minority languages with official recognition, though several of the presidential candidates have agreed to support the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. However, even if official policy changes don’t happen, he said that there has still been a cultural change in minority language regions:
“If we talk about languages such as Breton or Occitan, I think there has been a complete shift now. It used to be devalued, now it is very much valued.”
Maela Koareg, an activist from Brittany, has benefited from this shift, as her parents enrolled her in a private Diwan school, where classes are taught in the local Breton language. She told France 24,
“Personally, I’m very grateful that my parents decided to put me in a Breton-speaking school. It helped me build my identity.”
However, she continued, contrary to the fears of the men who wrote the French constitution, that doesn’t mean that she wants Brittany to separate from France:
“Contrary to what some may think, being taught in Breton does not lead to separatist tendencies nor to extreme nationalism. Our activism is peaceful. We’re just asking for politicians to give us the means to protect our language.”