The so-called Moliere clause, which stated labourers working on state-funded building projects in France had to communicate in French, had been adopted in six of France's 13 regions, but was quickly slammed as xenophobic by critics.
And France's government appeared to agree, saying the clause was illegal “and should be treated as such”, reported Le Figaro newspaper on Thursday.
The government ruled that the clause “cannot validly claim that it is there to protect workers, given the guarantees that are provided by European and national law”.
Indeed, European rules on public procurement bar discrimination on the grounds of nationality.
The divisive clause was actually backed by some who justified it as a security issue — workers might not be able to communicate unless they share a common language — but others said its aim was 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 in March.
The language rule, which did not affect private building sites, was dubbed the “Moliere clause” after the 17th-century icon of French letters.
Socialist Prime Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said last month that the rightwing backers of the language requirement aimed to “make election hay” out of a measure he called “openly discriminatory”.
'Not love of language'
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.
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 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.