After newly appointed Prime Minister Jean Castex spoke on TV for the first time social media flooded within seconds with people commenting on his accent.
“I love Jean Castex' accent, I feel like I'm on holiday,” said French right-wing European Parliament MP Nadine Morano, rather patronisingly.
“J'adore l'accent de Jean Castex, j'ai l'impression d'être en vacances”, assure Nadine Moranohttps://t.co/fZMUfnzzuH
— RMC (@RMCinfo) July 6, 2020
Castex, who is from the south-western département Gers, speaks like a typical south-western French, which means he stands 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 what is so “rugby” and regional about Jean Castex, a senior civil servant who has held prominent government positions and who is best known for leading France out of lockdown?
“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 center 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.
French writer and journalist Anne-Elizabeth Moutet says: “The truth is that French regional accents (and patois) *were* ruthlessly suppressed under the Third Republic. Yet they were killed off by television, not the government. And they're more often than not a huge asset in politics.”
Right now, after the Gilets Jaunes crisis, a regional accent is a huge asset: Il makes you sound connected to your roots and to the people, not a hated Paris technocrat. (PM Jean Castex is a mandarin/technocrat: his accent is brilliant protective colouring.)
Also: the French… 3/
— Anne-Elisabeth Moutet (@moutet) July 9, 2020
The map below shows the percentages of French people who have the feeling they have a regional accent.
Après sa prise de parole au 20h de TF1, l’accent du nv PM Jean Castex a donné lieu à un flot de commentaires et de critiques. C’est quoi avoir un #accent en France ? C’est quoi la #glottophobie ? Mon compte rendu du bouquin de @Feltin64 Et @jmapathie ?https://t.co/N0gA648eiu pic.twitter.com/tyuHa4QiDQ
— Mathieu Avanzi (@MathieuAvanzi) July 5, 2020
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.
Carte des accents régionaux en France pic.twitter.com/RO0M4zKoWZ
— Dylan Legrand (@DylanLegrandMgr) July 21, 2018
“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.
Stereotypes like these are firmly ingrained into French mentality and rivalry and cliches of people with different accents is a phenomenon that has existed 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.
This year, glottophobie could even be recognised as a legal problem in France, after a southern MP from President Emmanuel Macron’s ruling party proposed a bill aiming to end work-discrimination of people with regional accents.
The law has not yet passed and is set to be debated in the French parliament this year.
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.
“The new PM has a regional accent, and we should be happy,” Avanzi said: “It’s an important step in the history of discriminations linked to the accent in France, but also with regards to the recognition of the French language's regional varieties”.
Before handing the government reins over to Castex, former PM 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