Purists alarmed over moves to make French language less macho

Moves to make French more female-friendly have sparked impassioned debate in France, with the Academie Francaise warning of a "mortal danger" to the language of Moliere.

Purists alarmed over moves to make French language less macho
Photo: AFP

At the centre of the debate is the growing use of formulations such as “lecteur.rice.s” for the word “readers” to embrace both genders.

Several government ministries, universities and labour unions use so-called “inclusive writing”, but it had largely escaped public notice — until this autumn when it turned up in an elementary school history textbook.

The Academie Francaise, the arbiter of the French language which has inducted just eight women since its foundation in 1635, did not mince words.

“In the face of this ‘inclusive’ aberration, the French language finds itself in mortal danger,” the body intoned.

The widespread adoption of inclusive writing would add a layer of complexity that would make French less attractive on the world stage to the benefit of other major languages, it argued.

French Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer also weighed in to decry “repeated attacks on the French language.”

French “should not be exploited for fighting battles no matter how legitimate they are,” he said.

But “defenseur.e.s” (defenders) of inclusive writing say the French language must keep up with changing times.

Raphael Haddad, whose public relations firm published an inclusive writing manual last year, welcomed the debate, saying it would foster acceptance of the feminisation of the names of professions.

“Ten years ago, people criticised words like ambassadress… The revolution is under way,” he told AFP.

The debate comes as the issue of sexual harassment, abuse and violence is capturing headlines worldwide in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal.

But it is nothing new, and follows feminist linguistic campaigns dating to the French Revolution.

READ ALSO: French court bans couple from using Breton letter in baby’s name

Efforts in the 1980s by Socialist president Francois Mitterrand to introduce feminine versions of the names of professions met with stiff resistance from the Academie Francaise.

Then in 2015, France’s High Council for Equality Between Women and Men issued a guide urging public bodies to use gender-neutral language that avoids sexual stereotypes.

It suggested that feminine forms of the words for “firefighter” and “author” would make women “more visible”.

But the school textbook referring to farmers as “agriculteur.rice.s” and shop owners as “commercant.e.s” — complete with a new punctuation mark called the “middle dot” at the level of a hyphen — sparked particular rage among French language purists.

Former education minister Luc Ferry asked in a tweet: “Who is the cretin or cretine who invented (this) unpronounceable inclusive writing?”

“Rationalist” feminist Peggy Sastre, writing in the weekly Le Point, called it “intellectual terrorism”.

It was the Academie Francaise that reversed earlier more egalitarian rules derived from Latin.

Last week, 314 schoolteachers signed an op-ed on the French edition of the Slate news website pledging to scrap a rule governing the gender of adjectives.

They cited an 18th-century grammar book that stipulated a preference for masculine forms, saying “the masculine is seen as nobler than the feminine because of the superiority of the male over the female.”

Teaching this in schools, which “symbolise emancipation through knowledge… lead women and men to accept the domination of one sex over another,” the teachers wrote.

Viviane Youx, president of a French language teaching association, told AFP she encouraged a debate that would help “change mentalities”.

But critics such as philosopher Raphael Enthoven object to what they see as a prescriptive, authoritarian approach to the language spoken by some 275 million people worldwide.

They say language usage should be allowed to evolve naturally over time.

Others question complicating the language at a time when official figures show a steep drop in pupils’ verbal skills, notably in spelling.

But if inclusive writing prevails, the French Standardisation Association will be ready: early next year it will authorise two new French keyboard layouts that will include the “middle dot” needed to write “” (computer techs) correctly.

READ ALSO: La Vache! The strange origins of six French curse words

For members


Le Havre rules: How to talk about French towns beginning with Le, La or Les

If you're into car racing, French politics or visits to seaside resorts you are likely at some point to need to talk about French towns with a 'Le' in the title. But how you talk about these places involves a slightly unexpected French grammar rule. Here's how it works.

An old WW2 photo taken in the French port town of Le Havre.
An old WW2 photo taken in the French port town of Le Havre. It can be difficult to know what prepositions to use for places like this - so we have explained it for you. (Photo by AFP)

If you’re listening to French chat about any of those topics, at some point you’re likely to hear the names of Mans, Havre and Touquet bandied about.

And this is because French towns that have a ‘Le’ ‘La’ or ‘Les’ in the title lose them when you begin constructing sentences. 

As a general rule, French town, commune and city names do not carry a gender. 

So if you wanted to describe Paris as beautiful, you could write: Paris est belle or Paris est beau. It doesn’t matter what adjectival agreement you use. 

For most towns and cities, you would use à to evoke movement to the place or explain that you are already there, and de to explain that you come from/are coming from that location:

Je vais à Marseille – I am going to Marseille

Je suis à Marseille – I am in Marseille 

Je viens de Marseille – I come from Marseille 

But a select few settlements in France do carry a ‘Le’, a ‘La’ or a ‘Les’ as part of their name. 

In this case the preposition disappears when you begin formulating most sentences, and you structure the sentence as you would any other phrase with a ‘le’, ‘la’ or ‘les’ in it.


Le is the most common preposition for two names (probably something to do with the patriarchy) with Le Havre, La Mans, Le Touquet and the town of Le Tampon on the French overseas territory of La Réunion (more on that later)

A good example of this is Le Havre, a city in northern France where former Prime Minister, Edouard Philippe, who is tipped to one day run for the French presidency, serves as mayor. 

Edouard Philippe’s twitter profile describes him as the ‘Maire du Havre’, using a masculine preposition

Here we can see that his location is Le Havre, and his Twitter handle is Philippe_LH (for Le Havre) but when he comes to describe his job the Le disappears.

Because Le Havre is masculine, he describes himself as the Maire du Havre rather than the Maire de Havre (Anne Hidalgo, for example would describe herself as the Maire de Paris). 

For place names with ‘Le’ in front of them, you should use prepositions like this:

Ja vais au Touquet – I am going to Le Touquet

Je suis au Touquet – I am in Le Touquet 

Je viens du Touquet – I am from Le Touquet 

Je parle du Touquet – I am talking about Le Touquet

Le Traité du Touquet – the Le Touquet Treaty


Some towns carry ‘La’ as part of their name. La Rochelle, the scenic town on the west coast of France known for its great seafood and rugby team, is one such example.

In French ‘à la‘ or ‘de la‘ is allowed, while ‘à le‘ becomes au and ‘de le’ becomes du. So for ‘feminine’ towns such as this, you should use the following prepositions:

Je vais à La Rochelle – I am going to La Rochelle

Je viens de La Rochelle – I am coming from La Rochelle 


And some places have ‘Les’ in front of their name, like Les Lilas, a commune in the suburbs of Paris. The name of this commune literally translates as ‘The Lilacs’ and was made famous by Serge Gainsbourg’s song Le Poinçonneur des Lilas, about a ticket puncher at the Metro station there. 

When talking about a place with ‘Les’ as part of the name, you must use a plural preposition like so:

Je suis le poinçonneur des Lilas – I am the ticket puncher of Lilas 

Je vais aux Lilas – I am going to Les Lilas

Il est né aux Lilas – He was born in Les Lilas  


Islands follow more complicated rules. 

If you are talking about going to one island in particular, you would use à or en. This has nothing to do with gender and is entirely randomised. For example:

Je vais à La Réunion – I am going to La Réunion 

Je vais en Corse – I am going to Corsica 

Generally speaking, when talking about one of the en islands, you would use the following structure to suggest movement from the place: 

Je viens de Corse – I am coming from Corsica 

For the à Islands, you would say:

Je viens de La Réunion – I am coming from La Réunion 

When talking about territories composed of multiple islands, you should use aux.

Je vais aux Maldives – I am going to the Maldives. 

No preposition needed 

There are some phrases in French which don’t require any a preposition at all. This doesn’t change when dealing with ‘Le’ places, such as Le Mans – which is famous for its car-racing track and Motorcycle Grand Prix. Phrases that don’t need a preposition include: 

Je visite Le Mans – I am visiting Le Mans

J’aime Le Mans – I like Le Mans

But for a preposition phrase, the town becomes simply Mans, as in Je vais au Mans.