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

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?

'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)

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.” 

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. 

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.

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.’ 

Member comments

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

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French AOP cheese the latest victim of France’s drought

Your cheeseboard board might have to go without a classic French cheese for some time, after production was halted due to the impacts of drought. 

French AOP cheese the latest victim of France's drought

Production of Salars – a type of cows’ milk cheese from the central French département of Cantal – has been halted for an indefinite period, as France suffers its worst drought on record.

Across the country rivers have run dry and water restrictions have been imposed – and now the cheese-makers are affected too.

The Salars cheese is an AOP (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée), meaning the rules for its production are carefully defined – to be authentic, the cows’ diet must be at least 75 percent grass from pastures within the Auvergne region.

But as the drought continues, the normally fertile volcanic earth in Auvergne has gone hard and dry, and the grass has died – for the 78 AOP cheese producers in the region, their cows have not been able to graze for weeks.

READ MORE: Ask the expert: Why is France’s drought so bad and what will happen next?

“There is nothing left to eat at my place,” said Laurent Roux, a farmer at Gaec de la Calsade in Cantal, to Francetvinfo.

“In some places, the ground looks like ashes. It’s dust,” he added. Roux’ cows have not been able to graze since June 25th. 

While this is the first time a full production stop for Salers has occurred, it is not the first time the AOP has had to contend with challenging climate conditions.

Some farmers had to temporarily suspend production in 2017, and in 2019, the AOP requested a waiver to decrease cows’ share of grass in their diets to 50 percent rather than the usual 75 percent.

However, farmer and head of the AOP, Laurent Lours, said this option was not on the table this year. “It is not worth it because we do not even have 50 percent of the grass,” he told the local station of France 3

He expects production to drop by at least 15 percent this year, as the cheese is only produced on farms between April 15th and November 15th. 

READ MORE: More than 100 French villages without tap water in ‘unprecedented’ drought

For individual farmers, many will turn to Cantal cheese (rather than Salers), which has less restrictive regulations for its production. Doing so also means that they will earn less – a loss of €200 per 1,000 litres of milk.

As for consumers, they can expect a shortage in stores and increase in prices for Salers cheese.

The drought is expected to continue for the foreseeable future, with the possibility of impacting other cheeses and AOP products.

In Switzerland, producers of Gruyère cheese are also worried about a lower quantity of milk production and are considering bringing their cows down to the plains earlier than usual this season.

From the mussels in the bay of Mont-Saint-Michel (as a result of a lack of fresh water in the rivers) to the Espelette peppers being lost to high temperatures, drought will likely impact a range of France’s unique ingredients.