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.
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 “informaticien.ne.s” (computer techs) correctly.