• France's news in English
Could France really oust English as official EU language?
Photo: AFP

Could France really oust English as official EU language?

The Local · 1 Apr 2016, 17:08

Published: 01 Apr 2016 17:08 GMT+02:00

Facebook Twitter Google+ reddit
Much has been written about the future of the UK if it chooses to leave the European Union in June’s referendum. Less has been written about the effect of Brexit on the EU.
The loss of British influence in Europe would be felt in many ways, most likely resulting in a less neoliberal, free-market-oriented bloc. Recently I’ve written about the possibility of a more proactive EU environmental policy if the UK were to leave. But could a Brexit also affect linguistics?
Today The Local France published a tongue-in-cheek (note today's date) evaluation of what a Brexit would mean for the English language in Europe, given that it has long been in the crosshairs of the French government. They imagine a future where the Academie Francaise, France's notoriously strict language enforcer, would send patrols around the country looking for British expats who can't speak French. Given the (well-deserved) reputation of Anglophones for not sufficiently learning the langauges of the countries they move to, the April Fools article hits where it hurts.
But in fact there is truth behind this gag. Right now UK citizens have the right to live and work in France, and the government cannot require them to speak French in order to do so. Were the UK to leave the EU and not be allowed to join the European Economic Area, it would mean Brits would have to apply for a visa to live in France. And France could easily require language proficiency as a requirement for granting visas.
It's not as far-fetched as it might sound at first. In fact the April Fools article is in response to actual French media speculation that the government will wage a campaign to eradicate English from Brussels if the UK leaves the EU.
English no longer justified 
Though there are 24 'official languages' of the EU, the bloc's institutions use three 'working languages' to conduct everyday business - German, French and English. This is based on the fact that these are the three largest countries in the union.
Germans, not particularly evangelistic about their language, have allowed German to slip into disuse despite the fact that it is by far the most widely spoken first language in the bloc (18% vs 12% and 13% for French and English). This has left English and French as the two de facto working languages, most clearly exemplified by the fact that the European Commission's daily midday press briefing is conducted in only these two tongues.
French has seen its preeminence dissipate following the 2004 accession of Eastern European countries, whose citizens sent to Brussels as civil servants are far more likely to speak English than French. 
But France isn't giving up without a fight. They have waged a long battle against the English language under the guise of maintaining "multilingualism" (a thin veneer for enforcing the French language on others). The French government even pays for journalists and diplomats in Brussels to learn French, something I took advantage of for many years (thanks French taxpayers!).
Of course, this has been a losing battle. English has become the lingua franca of EU institutions and the businesses surrounding them, and French is mostly used in offices that skew older or Southern. The predominance of English has even created a sometimes hilarious non-native dialect we've come to call "Brussels English". 
But the French have not given up, and perhaps some at the Acadamie Francaise are licking their lips at the prospect of Brexit. Finally, France can strike back.
Ireland and Malta
Were the UK to leave the EU, there would be only two small member states with English as a national language - Ireland and Malta. Together they make up less than 1% of the EU population (and both countries have another national language in addition). By contrast, Italians make up 12%, Spaniards 9.2%, and Poles 7.6% of the population.
How then could English still be justified as one of the three working languages? France could make a fair case to get rid of it.
No legal basis 
Threre's only one hitch - the 'three working language' rule has never been codified into law. There was an attempt to add it into the EU constitution of 2004. But after that was rejected by voters, the provision was removed from its successor, the Lisbon Treaty. 
The fact that the three language rule has never been codified is the basis of a current legal challenge by Italy and Spain against the EU for conducting its 'concours' - the tests one needs to pass to become an EU civil servant - in at least one of these three languages.
Story continues below…
So, there would be no 'legal' basis on which France could challenge the predominance of English, since technically all 24 languages are equal. But could France use Brexit as a justification for dismantling English from its place as the main de facto EU working language? 
It's unlikely, because the forces that have made English so powerful are more cultural than governmental. Why do all these young civil servants coming from Eastern Europe speak English? Because they've been watching American television and movies their entire lives. It has little to do with the UK. It isn't only in Europe that English is the main means of inter-cultural communication. It is a global phenomenon. A Brexit isn't going to change that.
Currently, 51% of EU citizens can speak English as a first or second language. 26% can speak French and 32% can speak German (begging the question - why should French be the natural sucessor?). Even if the UK leaves, that would still leave 45% of the EU population able to speak English (198K non-UK English speakers out of a new EU population of 443K).
So while it might seem a strange situation for a post-Brexit EU to continue using English as its main language, I can't see it going any other way. France may historically be Europe's biggest linguistic bully, but English has grown too powerful to dethrone.
But, I imagine, that wouldn't stop the French from trying.
This post originally appeared in Brussels2Berlin, a blog by Dave Keating about . Read the entry here, or visit his site here
Facebook Twitter Google+ reddit

Your comments about this article

Today's headlines
France to clear 'Jungle' migrant camp Monday
Migrants will be bussed from the camp to some 300 temporary accommodation centres around France. Photo: Denis Charlet/ AFP

The "Jungle" migrant camp on France's northern coast will be cleared of its residents on Monday before being demolished, authorities said Friday.

How life for expats in France has changed over the years
A market in Eymet, southwestern France. Photo: AFP

Foreigners in France explain how life has changed over the years.

London calling for Calais youths, but only a chosen few
Photo: AFP

Dozens of Calais minors are still hanging their hopes on help from the UK, but not all will be so lucky.

17 different ways to talk about sex in French
Photo: Helga Weber/Flickr

Fancy a quick run with the one-legged man?

Yikes! This is what a rat-infested French jail looks like
Photo: YouTube/France Bleu TV.

This video is not for sufferers of ratophobia (or musophobia as the condition is officially called).

France to allow Baby Jesus in Town Halls this Christmas
Photo: AFP

Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus are safe to go on display again this year, it seems.

National Front posts locations of migrants in French town
The National Front courts controversy. Photo: AFP

"Local tax payers have a right to know," says local far-right party chief.

Paris thieves use tear gas to steal €500,000 of watches
Photo: AFP

The thieves pretended to be couriers then threatened staff with tear gas to get the watches.

Bataclan survivor recounts attack in chilling drawings
Photo: BFMTV screengrab

One survivor has recounted the horrific night through illustrations.

Anger among French police grows as Hollande vows talks
French police demonstrate on the Champs Elysées. Photo: AFP

A fourth night of protests shows government efforts to ease anger among French police have been fruitless.

Sponsored Article
How to vote absentee from abroad in the US elections
Why Toulouse is THE place to be in France right now
Sponsored Article
Last chance to vote absentee in the US elections
Video: New homage to Paris shows the 'real side' of city
The 'most dangerous' animals you can find in France
Sponsored Article
How to vote absentee from abroad in the US elections
Swap London fogs for Paris frogs: France woos the Brits
Anger after presenter kisses woman's breasts on live TV
Is France finally set for a cold winter this year?
IN PICS: The story of the 'ghost Metro stations' of Paris
How to make France's 'most-loved' dish: Magret de Canard
Welcome to the flipside: 'I'm not living the dream in France'
Do the French really still eat frogs' legs?
French 'delicacies' foreigners really find hard to stomach
French are the 'world's most pessimistic' about the future
Why the French should not be gloomy about the future
This is the most useful French lesson you will ever have. How to get angry
Why is there a giant clitoris in a field in southern France?
French pastry wars: Pain au chocolat versus chocolatine
Countdown: The ten dishes the French love the most
Expats or immigrants in France: Is there a difference?
How the French reinvented dozens of English words
The ups and downs of being both French and English
How Brexit vote has changed life for expats in France
Twelve French insults we'd love to have in English
What's on in France: Ten of the best events in October
jobs available