France (finally) takes step to save regional tongues

France's sacred notion of protecting its own language has meant it has little room for its other regional tongues. But on Tuesday MPs in the National Assembly finally took a big step towards promoting a key part of the country's cultural diversity, that has long been resisted.

France (finally) takes step to save regional tongues
French MPs took a big step on Tuesday toward making regional linguists very happy. Photo: Pascal Guyot/AFP

After a long wait, France may finally be ready to officially recognize and protect a key portion of its cultural heritage.

MPs in the National Assembly voted overwhelming on Tuesday in favour of changing France’s constitution in order to ratify a 20-year-old European pact that would support regional languages.

The 361-149 vote is a significant first step towards official approval of the European Charter of Regional and Minority Languages, which would promote and protect the languages in schools, the media and public institutions, TF1 television reported.

Approving the constitutional amendment is a big deal in France because the country’s founding principles value above all a unified Republic and culture under one language – French.

The bill, which is just a step on the path to the ratification of the charter, will next go before the Senate. Another bill detailing how the French constitution will be changed to the affect that the charter can be signed, will then have to be passed by both the upper and lower house. The joint vote, which is a way of avoiding a referendum,  would take place at Versailles.

So Bretons, Basques and Alsatians still have a long wait before they can celebrate a revival of the regional tongues.

(The map below shows Europe's patchwork of minority languages, with Catalan topping the table for the most number of speakers ahead of Bas Allemand or Low German. Sicilian is next followed by the Basque language)

During his 2012 presidential campaign President François Hollande promised to finally make the pact law. 

One campaigner for regional languages considers France's approach totally hypocritical. While the country takes great pains to protect French from being overtaken by Anglo words like email, it has done little to protect regional tongues. In fact the regional language pact was first drawn up in 1992. Though France signed on to the agreement in 1999, it is not binding until lawmakers approve it.

“In France the Republic is singular, indivisible and must have only one language, or so the thinking goes,” Yann An Aod, a leader of Kelc'h Sevenadurel Gwened, a Breton cultural promotion group told The Local previously. “The regions interest the country’s leaders, but only from a cultural point of view, as a place to visit as a tourist.”

Despite France’s over 2 million speakers of local languages like Breton and Corsican, the pact has become tangled in France’s Jacobin tradition of one tongue for all. As a result the pact has languished for 15 years.

Most recently, France’s top legal advisor, the Council of State (Conseil d’état), said in March 2013 that the charter would introduce “a fundamental inconsistency into the constitution.” However, if France does finally decide to approve the pact it would have plenty of company.

Germany, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom are among the 25 nations that have ratified that pact. France, Italy, Russia and five other nations have not gone further than the largely symbolic act of adding their signature.

(This map below shows the top minority languages in each country. It throws up a few surprises.)

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