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FRENCH HISTORY

Don’t ask Google, ask us: Why are the French so protective of their language?

In this mini series, The Local answers common questions that comes up when you start typing questions with "France" or "the French" into the Google search engine.

Daniel Rondeau the newest member of the Académie Française, leaves after his induction ceremony at the Institut de France
Daniel Rondeau the newest member of the Académie Française, leaves after his induction ceremony at the Institut de France in Paris. Photo by STEPHANE DE SAKUTIN / AFP)

Why are the French . . . so protective of their language?

Close to 300 million people speak French

It is the fifth most spoken language around the world, the fourth most used language on the internet and the official language of 29 countries. Africa is the continent with the largest number of French speakers.

More than perhaps any other language in the world, the French language is heavily regulated. 

The Académie Française, a sort of linguistic police created in 1635, has the final say on what counts as real French. The dozens of members who sit in the academy at any one time are known as “The Immortals”. They have an official uniform and carry a sword. Its 35 current members are overwhelmingly white and male – although this is perhaps the most diverse Académie in history. 

READ ALSO Swords, immortality and wifi: 5 things to know about Académie française

In the 19th century, regional languages, of which there are some 75 in mainland France, were banned in schools. In 1992 the French parliament amended the constitution to cement the idea that “the language of the Republic is French”. That same year, France was the only country in Western Europe not to sign the Charter on Regional and Minority Languages passed by the Council of Europe.

Multiple laws have been passed to ban foreign words when French alternatives are possible. And the use of Franglais and gender-neutral language frequently comes under fire from the country’s political establishment. 

So what’s going on? Why are the French so defensive of their language? 

Centralisation of power

Maurice Druon, a former head of the Académie Français, once said “The language of a people is its soul”. 

At the time of the Académie’s creation, mainland France was still undergoing a period of expansion. The sense of France as a unified state was far less defined as it is today – and regional identities were far stronger. 

By centralising linguistic authority in Paris and suppressing regional dialects, the King hoped to create a sense of a single, unified idea of France. In doing so, it was reasoned, governing would be easier and revolt less likely. 

Declining global status 

The main reason that France is so defensive of its language today is because of the country’s declining global status. 

French was once the language of international diplomacy, even more so than English. This was partly to do with the country’s imperial status as an empire stretching from Southeast Asia to the Caribbean and military might stretching back as far as the Early Modern period. 

But since the mid-20th century decline of France as an imperial power, this is no longer the case, with English becoming the dominant language in international organisations such as the UN. Today, most French school children learn English as a second language. 

As part of an effort to push back against this, in 1970 France created the Organisation internationale de la Francophonie, a sort of French answer to the British Commonwealth, devotes enormous resources to the promotion of French worldwide. 

It is not only a face-saving mission against the tide of anglophone globalisation but also a shrewd economic initiative. The French language is an important medium through which French cultural exports like cinema and music is exported. 

Social conservatism and electioneering

The recent pushback against gender inclusive-pronouns, like iel, can be seen as a form of conservative pushback against a perceived ‘wokeness’ among certain sections of the population. 

The culture wars that have consumed British and American societies in recent years appear to have arrived in France. 

With an election fast approaching, French President Emmanuel Macron’s main political opponents come from the Right of the political spectrum.

When the Education Minister, Jean-Michel Blanquer, comes out with lines like “Inclusive writing is not the future of the French language”, it is possible that he is playing into a reactionary narrative aimed at seducing right-wing-minded voters. 

Everyday French

We should also point out that there is ‘official’ French and then there is the language that French people actually use. Dictats on the use of English apply only to official documents and commericial use like adverts, while the Académie française has no actual legal standing for its pronouncements.

Listen to the everyday chat of a group of French people, especially younger ones, and you will notice that it is littered with English words, from cool to le wifi, le come-back to le buzz.

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Member comments

  1. Your headline is misleading. It’s not the French people that are protective of the language, but the Académie Française, which fails to understand that all languages are a living being and are always evolving. The vast majority of under 50s feel that this out of date Académie Française is holding France back in the modern international commercial world.

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FRENCH HISTORY

French history myths: France only sent one Statue of Liberty to the US

You might already know that New York's Lady Liberty was a gift from France, but did you know she is far from the only Liberty figure, and not even the only one to have travelled from France to the United States?

French history myths: France only sent one Statue of Liberty to the US

Myth: The French have only sent the Americans one Statue of Liberty

It is likely common knowledge that the United States’ iconic 93-metre-tall Lady Liberty is actually French in origin, gifted to the USA to mark 100 years since American independence.

But you might not realise that the New York City monument is not the only one the French have gifted to the United States.

In 2021, another – this time smaller – Statue of Liberty travelled to New York from France.

This replica was also meant to be a symbol of French-American friendship. Having previously been on display in Paris with the National Conservatory of Arts and Crafts, the statue travelled across the Atlantic to the United States in June of 2021. It eventually made its way from New York to Washington DC, where it went on display at the French ambassador’s residence for Bastille Day. It will remain there until 2031.

The conservatory told CNN that sending the statue to the United States was meant to “send a very simple message: Our friendship with the United States is very important, particularly at this moment. We have to conserve and defend our friendship.”

The original statue stands as the third tallest in the world, but she is not the only Lady Liberty in the world. The second-most famous Statue of Liberty was actually gifted to the French by Americans, specifically those living in Paris. Only a fourth of the height of the original, the Statue stands on the Île de Cygnes in the Seine river in Paris, facing westward toward the New York statue.

Several other replicas – at least 100 of them – exist across the world. There are several of them in France alone, and if you want to find them you can plan your Lady Liberty road trip by clicking HERE.

READ MORE: Where to find France’s 12 Statues of Liberty

The original Statue of Liberty also represents more than just the shared friendship between the United States and France.

French historian Édouard de Laboulaye came up with the idea for the statue and made the proposal for it in 1865. While the statue was intended to be a gift to strengthen the relationship between the two countries, Laboulaye was also an anti-slavery activist and avid supporter of the Union during the Civil War. He hoped that the statue would represent liberty and symbolise the freedom of thought repressed under Napoleon III’s regime. 

Eventually, it was sculptor Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi who brought the statue to life (reputedly modelled her face on his mother) helped by a famous engineer known for another and tall structure – Gustave Eiffel.

The statue was intended to mark 100 years since the American declaration of independence in 1776, but initially only the torch-bearing arm was displayed, the full statute was not finally completed for another 10 years and was dedicated in 1886.

This article is part of our August series on myths and misconceptions from French history.

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