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'Right to French' : When is it illegal to use English in France?

Genevieve Mansfield
Genevieve Mansfield - [email protected] • 7 Jun, 2022 Updated Tue 7 Jun 2022 12:06 CEST
'Right to French' : When is it illegal to use English in France?
The Institut de France, which houses the Academie francaise(Photo by Ludovic MARIN / AFP)

The French are notoriously proud of their language and several bodies to exist to safeguard it from the looming threat of English words and phrases - but is it ever actually illegal to use English in France?

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Have you ever noticed the sly use of an anglicism in adverts in France?

Maybe you've seen one encouraging you to check out a new dating app that will help you avoid le ghosting. Well, if you look carefully, you should also see a small disclaimer - a translation into French reminding readers le ghosting is actually la disparation.

Likewise with Ricard's new advertising campaign 'Born à Marseille', viewers are reminded that 'born = né'.

 

That little note is not just to help out non-English speakers, it's actually a legal requirement.

What is the law? 

The loi 4 août 1994 is also referred to as the loi Toubon, a testament to the French Minister of Culture at the time, who was quoted saying "the right to French is a fundamental right." 

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The law was passed in an effort to keep the French language a "fundamental element of the personality and heritage of France."

Specifically, it regulates and requires the use of French in education, work, trade, and public services. It is mostly known for its attempts to crackdown on the use of franglais in the public space, but covers use of all languages and aims to preserve French and give each French person the 'right to be informed' in French.

The French had made previous attempts to codify the right to French. In 1975, the Bas-Lauriol law laid the foundation of requiring French in the public space, specifically by making it mandatory for public signs use French words. However, many still felt the spirit of the law had not been applied, and by the time 1992 rolled around, pressure mounted to further preserve the future of the French language. 

What does the law cover?

The loi Toubon covers three main areas; the workplace, advertising and public communications.

Work - Employers must use the French language for any document that outlines expectations of workers (especially if these expectations are relevant to their remuneration), which would include work contracts. There are a few exceptions to the law - for instance, if the employee themselves is not French or if the company works in air transport (an industry whose international nature requires the use of a common language, which is typically English). 

Advertising and marketing - Companies are permitted to use words or phrases in languages other than French, but must translate them into French. It also applies to audiovisual advertising, requiring that French must be as "legible, audible and intelligible as that in foreign languages."

Public communications - any kind of advertising or information campaign published by local or regional government must be in French, although it is permissable to provide the information translated into another language if it targets a spcific group - for example the post-Brexit residency card website for Brits in France was available in both French and English.

Additionally, the law requires that French remain the teaching language for both public and private educational institutions in France - although there are exceptions for bilingual schools and international schools such as the American School of Paris. 

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And what doesn't it cover?

You'll be relieved to hear that conversation in English is not covered by the law, you can legally chat in English to anyone who will listen.

Fortunately for The Local, it's also perfectly legal to publish information - either online or on paper - in English.

For public announcements or notices in a business using English is fine, as long as you also have the information available in French.

So much English is really used in France?

According to a study by Crédoc in 2021, almost a third of French workers used a foreign language in the workplace, and of those people, 84 percent used English.

This includes people who work in tourist areas such as serving staff and shop assistants, who frequently speak English to better communicate with their foreign customers.

It also includes people who work in international organisations and those who work in an environment that relies on a lot of English-language jargon, such as tech industries.

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Agnès Vandevelde-Rougale, a socio-anthropologist at the University of Paris-Diderot, told Le Monde: "Language practices are changing, and French terms decreed by institutions will not be understood because English words are part of the dominant language.

"When employees of multinational companies or start-ups talk about their work outside the company, they choose words that they use every day in the company."

What are the penalties for illegal English

Several bodies exist to protect the French language from encroaching English, like the Académie Française, the Ministry of Culture, and the Association Francophonie Avenir - which brings lawsuits against French businesses that break the rules of loi Toubon.

READ MORE: Swords, immortality and wifi: Five things to know about the Academie française

And failing to respect the law can result in a fine - typically fixed at €135 - with the maximum penalty of €3,750. But it is rare for the penalty to actually be applied. 

Usually there are only about thirty penalties given per year - although courts can order companies to translate material into French - and the enforcement mechanism of the law is quite weak.

Public prosecutors are not obligated to follow up on complaints, as the offence does not necessitate a criminal proceeding so most cases that end up before the courts are brought as private prosecutions. 

So, in practice, it's hard to hold someone accountable for failing to give the 'right to French.' 

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kimolosgroup 2022/06/10 06:58
I appreciate the willingness of the French to speak to me in English but it doesn't help me to learn French. Imagine if we removed all French words from English. We wouldn't be able to speak.
anita_cornwell 2022/06/07 17:47
So why do the road signs say 'Stop' rather than 'Arrêt'?
lisa.sharamitaro 2022/06/07 17:12
I was once told by a customer service rep of an electric company (while trying to set up my account) that it was against company policy for him to speak English with me on the line.

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