Can France really force foreign labourers to speak français?

The move to force labourers in France to speak French has proven divisive. So is it a good move for safety or is it just the latest form of thinly disguised xenophobia?

Can France really force foreign labourers to speak français?
Photo: AFP
A new rightwing talking point has entered the political debate ahead of France's presidential elections: should foreign workers be required to speak French on building sites?
Six of France's 13 regions have adopted rules mandating French for labourers on state-funded building projects, drawing fire for trying to fan xenophobic sentiment ahead of the two round April-May vote for president.
With unemployment stuck at around 10 percent for years, polls show that jobs are the leading concern of French voters, with unfair competition for French companies from abroad a perennial political interest.
Although some backers have justified it as a security issue — workers might not be able to communicate unless they share a common language — others admit its aim is to prevent labourers from eastern Europe undercutting locals.
“It's an essential condition for the safety of building site workers,” said Valerie Pecresse, president of the Paris region Ile de France upon approving the rule for its public works last week.
The new language rule, which does not affect private building sites, is dubbed the “Moliere clause” after the 17th-century icon of French letters.
Socialist Prime Minister Bernard Cazeneuve on Wednesday said the rightwing backers of the language requirement aimed to “make election hay” out of a measure he called “openly discriminatory”.
The measure may run counter to European rules on public procurement, which bar discrimination on the grounds of nationality.
'Not love of language' 
Of particular concern in France is a separate EU rule allowing companies to bring in workers from eastern European temporarily who must be paid the French minimum wage — but are exempt from high French social charges.
The measure “is not inspired by the love of our language but by the goal of impeding competition from foreign companies using foreign workers,” Cazeneuve added.
Socialist lawmaker Gilles Savary said: “Don't be fooled, it's just electoral posturing with an undercurrent of xenophobia.”
He said there are no accident statistics to back up the safety claims, and even if it were applied across the country it would not prevent low-cost labour since French-speaking workers are available from France's many former colonies.
According to the labour ministry's policy unit, some 285,000 foreign workers are in France under a 1996 EU directive originally aimed at allowing companies to hire workers with specialised skills from other member states on a temporary basis.
Though the number has grown steadily over the years, it represents only one percent of the country's overall workforce.
Polish plumbers
In practise, many companies use the programme to bring in cheap labour, often from eastern Europe, in what is termed “social dumping” in France as local workers are priced out of jobs.
It dates from long before 10 mostly ex-communist states joined the EU in its 2004 big bang expansion.
Today, around one-sixth of France's foreign workers are from Poland.
The directive is under review because of abuses such as undeclared workers, workers being paid far less than the minimum wage, or overstaying the maximum period allowed.
The head of the employers' federation opposes the Moliere clause, warning of a slippery slope.
“You start with that and then you start to play favourites,” said Medef chief Pierre Gattaz, warning against “nationalist” excesses.    
“Then you close the French borders and end up leaving the eurozone.”
These are planks in the platform of far right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen, who for her part dismissed the Moliere clause as a devious half-measure, calling for the outright scrapping of the 1996 EU directive.
“When you don't want to say things clearly… you take circuitous routes,” she said.
Polls currently suggest Le Pen would win the first round of the election on April 23, but lose in the run-off on May 7 against independent centrist Emmanuel Macron.
'Poor Moliere' 
The debate is reminiscent of the run-up to a 2005 national referendum that rejected a draft European constitution partly over fears — fanned by the far-right — of a flood of cheap labour from eastern post-communist states.
Denis Bertrand, a prominent semiologist — specialising in the creation of meaning — said calling the rule the “Moliere clause” was manipulative.
“Why this rule all of a sudden?” asked Bertrand, a professor of French literature at Paris University.
“Asking a hardhat to speak the language of Moliere is a bit grotesque… Poor Moliere, a great genius is having his name used by people who are unworthy of him,” he told AFP.

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.


Franglais: Why do French adverts love to use English words?

More and more French adverts use English words or phrases in a blending of languages that might strike an English-speaker as strange or odd. In reality, this is part of a wider - sometimes polarising - phenomenon that has been going on for decades.

Franglais: Why do French adverts love to use English words?

While wandering around France, you might pass by a bus stop featuring an advertisement not unlike the yogurt advertisement below.

An advertisement by a French bus stop

After examining the poster for a few seconds you might find yourself scratching your head at the seemingly random addition of these non-French words to an advertisement that is intended for French-speaking people. Or – maybe you just chuckle at the play on words with ‘milk’ (lait) and the French word for English, Anglais

And this kind of thing is far from uncommon in France, seemingly random English words are often chucked into French adverts, such as the below Ricard advert with its ‘born à Marseille’ strapline.

The use of English in French advertising is by no means a new trend. It is part of the wider – occasionally controversial – phenomenon of anglicismes – the borrowing of English terms into French that goes back centuries.

But linguist Julie Neveux says that the advertisements we see today are more likely part of a newer current – one that has taken hold in the past two to three decades: les californismes.

“It is true that English has become the language of marketing,” said linguist Neveux, a professor at Sorbonne University who has written a book on the subject: Je parle comme je suis

“The use of English has been ‘cool’ since World War II. I don’t think that has changed in the last 50 years, but in the last ten to 15 we are seeing more californismes than anglicismes.”

The term ‘californisme‘ was coined by French linguist, dictionary editor, and radio personality Alain Rey. He noted that the English words appearing in the French language in recent years are more emblematic of Silicon Valley than of the English language overall.

Neveux explains that while certain terms stem from English-language internet and tech related terms – think: cliquer, scroller, and mail – in France, californismes have become “more visible in every day life and conversation” in large part due to the election of President Emmanuel Macron. 

When campaigning in 2017, Macron lauded his desire for the country to become a ‘start-up nation.’

Macron has in many ways achieved this goal – in 2021, start-ups in France earned over €11.6 billion, an increase of 115 percent in comparison to 2020 where they earned just €5.4 billion. There are currently 27,000 start-ups, compared to the 9,400 there were in 2016, prior to Macron’s election.

These companies have gone on to create a total of nearly one million jobs, and will create 250,000 more by 2025, according to forecasts. 

So what does this have to do with franglais adverts? Well linguists say that the Silicone Valley culture – and English phrases – have influenced both the French workplace and popular culture.

Though a start-upper’s request for ‘un feedback’ might seem removed from the random English words interjected in advertisements, but the two are interconnected because they involve the same population.

“Advertisements speak to a particular audience,” explained Micha Cziffra who works as a professional translator, helping his clients find the right words in several fields, including marketing and communications.

He said that French people see English as “modern” and culturally relevant. It also comes down to audience, if the target is a young, cosmopolitan person, advertisers might use English to tap into that identity.

“It gives a cool, trendy impact,” said Cziffra.

He added that using English “still depends on the client, some do not want any words in English, and others – those who accept the ‘dominance of usage’ of English – will want it for putting a post on Facebook or Twitter.”

It is worth noting that are some limitations to using the English language marketing in France – it must always be accompanied by a translation in French, as per the Loi Toubon.

READ MORE: ‘Right to French’ : When is it illegal to use English in France?

More modern, more tech

While it is widely known that the Académie Française, the principle council for all matters related to the French language, have their qualms with the use of English words in French, some communications and marketing workers also have concerns about the impacts of these ‘in-groups’ on the rest of society.

Frédéric Fougerat is the Director of Communications for Emeria, a real estate firm. He is an outspoken critic of ‘Franglais,’ having written and spoken widely on the subject.

“In the workspace, it is often managers who impose English to make themselves appear more serious and business-oriented,” said Fougerat.

“It can become a handicap for others who do not speak or understand English as well. It can exclude them.”

He adds that the use of English is often intended to “impose hierarchy” as well as to signal one’s cosmopolitanism – pointing to international degrees and experience.

“The language of Molière is marvellous. The language of Shakespeare is marvellous. They are less marvellous when we mix them.”

A long history of mixing 

Yet, according to Julie Neveux, who refers to English and French as ‘cousin languages,’ the two have been mixed for centuries. 

Franglais is a menace that is not real. We must distinguish between language and the symbol of economic dominance of English,” said Neveux.

To her, the outcry over anglicismes is more reflective of fears of American dominance in commerce, technology, and the general global economy.

“In the 17th century, there was a panic about Italianismes – a fear that the Italian language would invade and take over from French, because Italy was an economic power at the time.” 

Neveux agrees that concern around exclusion is legitimate – older generations in France are less likely to have a strong command of the English language, and socioeconomic status can also exclude working class populations from gaining English-speaking experience abroad.

But in advertising, exclusion is the name of the game. There is, according to Neveux “an economic interest in not talking to part of the population” for selling certain products.

Even governmental announcements have audiences in mind.

Neveux looks over public announcement from Paris’ 10th arrondisement above, written in a playful mix of English and French. At first she giggles, and then she explains that there is clearly an audience in mind.

“For the Mairie du 10ème, it is clearly focused on youth. It has a humorous tone, and it’s intended to appeal to a younger generation who like to play with codes.” 

The final group concerned by English words in French advertisements is of course native English speakers themselves, as these adverts appear very different for Francophones versus Anglophones. Julie Neveux explained that this is due to the fact that once an English word is appropriated into French, it often takes on a French pronunciation and a revised meaning in the French context. This makes the English word essentially French in practice. 

“Think of the word ‘week-end‘ in French. It comes from the English term ‘weekend.’ It has a different meaning from ‘fin de la semaine’ in French because it accentuates the English idea that the working week is over,” said the linguist.

Neveux explained that in French, people say ‘je vais partir en week-end’ which translates exactly to “I am going on weekend.” The syntax of the sentence is different in French than in English, as over the last century the French word ‘week-end’ has evolved to carry its own sense.

This is why if you see an advertisement like the one below, while scratching your head trying to make out the meaning, the French person beside you may be laughing, loving the joke.