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Why all the snobbery in France around regional accents?

The Local France
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Why all the snobbery in France around regional accents?
Why would someone say the southwest French accent is 'a little rugby'? Photo: AFP/French government (map)

Although France is officially the country of 'equality' it has a long history of snobbery - or even discrimination - around regional accents.

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When former Prime Minister Jean Castex spoke on TV for the first time after his appointment in July 2020, the first comments were not about what he said, but the accent he said it in.

"I love Jean Castex's accent, I feel like I'm on holiday," said French right-wing European Parliament MP Nadine Morano, rather patronisingly.

 

Castex - who was replaced as PM in April 2022 and is now head of the Paris public transport network RATP - is from the south-western département Gers and speaks like a typical south-western Frenchman, which made him stand out in the heavily Parisian-dominated French political classes.

 

One commentator said his accent was "a little rugby," presumably referring to the fact rugby's stronghold in France is the south west and not Paris.

But the insulting comments about his accent came as no surprise to many people who have studied language and regional accents in France.

READ ALSO: The regional French slang you'll need for travelling around France

'Hillbilly'

“If someone’s pronunciation differs from “the standard French”, which means the French spoken in the greater Paris region, they will be discriminated against,” linguist Mathieu Avanzi, author of the blog Français de nos regions (French of our regions), told The Local.

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Strong regional accents are associated with lower social-professional categories, the linguist explained.

The “standard French” is the French spoken in the greater Paris region of Île-de-France. Historically, this was where the French kings lived.

Still today French people “associate the Île-de-France region with prestige,” according to Avanzi.

“It is the cultural, political, media-friendly capital. Everything outside this region is hillbilly,” he said.

"In France, the region of Paris has played the centre role for centuries, geographically speaking. The power, the biggest media but also most of the writers of commercial dictionaries (Larousse and Robert, to mention the main ones) are in Paris", Avanzi wrote in a blog article

The map below shows the percentages of French people who have the feeling they have a regional accent. 

 

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Today, you can trace variants of this Parisian “standard accent” out on a geographical line that stretches out to Nancy in the east and Rennes in the west, the linguist explained.

That does not mean that a Rennais and a Parisian will consider their accents identical, but their accents belong to the same category.

The biggest accent divide in France is between the Northern accent and the Southern accent, Avanzi explained.

 

“The Northern accent is known as nice but vulgar. The Southern accent reminds people of holiday but not necessarily of hard work,” he said.

 

The accent found in the northernmost region of France Nord-Pas-de-Calais, is notorious in France, known as Ch’ti (sticks). French people tend to think of les Ch’tis as slightly brutish and simple, a myth founded partly on the ch’ti accent, which can be hard to understand for French people from other regions.

READ ALSO: Is the 'endearing' Marseille accent in danger of dying out?

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'Glottophobie'

Stereotypes like these are firmly ingrained into French mentality and have been for decades. More recently, it got a name: glottophobie (a sort of xenophobia of languages).

A French linguist invented the term in 2016 to categorise what he said was a typical French phenomenon of discriminating against people with regional accents. 

In 2021, glottophobie became a part of the legal lexicon in France, as it became illegal to discriminate against people in a work-related context because of their accent.

READ ALSO: Grumpy Parisians and drunk northerners: What are the French regional stereotypes?

A social media effect

So can an accent really be the reason behind someone being held back in professional life in France?

“Many people adapt their pronunciation, journalists for example learn to control their accent, but it’s difficult to measure if it really prevents them from getting a job,” said Avanzi.

Social media has however lead to accent discrimination becoming a well-established problem in France, with gaffes easily going viral - like MEP Nadine Morano's comment regarding the new PM’s accent making her feel like she was on holiday.

In 2018, a video showing far-left MP Jean-Luc Mélenchon mimicking the Southern accent of a journalist went viral, showing how badly a turn a misplaced comment from a Parisian politician on a regional accent can take today.

Before handing the government reins over to Castex, his predecessor Edouard Philippe, whose accent is classic Parisian, is said to have told people present at a meeting that "[Jean Castex] has a huge accent but he is really skilled". 

"No, Prime Minister," Castex replied, according to French daily Le Parisien. "It is you who has the accent." 

By Olivia Sorrel-Dejerine

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