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OPINION: Making French fully inclusive is a grammatical and political nightmare

John Lichfield
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OPINION: Making French fully inclusive is a grammatical and political nightmare

As a political row erupts in France over 'inclusive writing' - John Lichfield looks at the history of trying to make the French language more gender neutral, and why the very structure of the language makes it so difficult.


Aux armes, citoyens! Or rather Aux armes citoyen·nnes!

Is the French language sexist? Is male supremacy enshrined in French grammar and therefore hard-wired into French thought patterns?

If you filled the Stade de France with 80,000 women, they would be spectatrices. If a stray man happened to enter, they would all become - in correct French grammar - spectateurs. The 79,999 Elles would become Ils.

Such grammatical sex-change operations litter French speech and writing. It is only recently that the Académie Francaise allowed female presidents to be called Madame La Presidente. Previously, the correct form was to say Madame Le President.


Arguments for a better male/female balance in French grammar and job-titles are not new. They were considered by the very first Assembly National in the 1790s. Nothing was done, perhaps because there were no female members (deputées) until 1945.

A gender-neutral form of written French called “inclusive writing” has gained ground in recent years. It has become almost universal on the French left. It is detested on the French right.

READ ALSO Explained: How French 'inclusive writing' works

This week the upper house, Le Sénat, and President Emmanuel Macron took a stand for the purity of French grammar, quirks and all. The Senate passed a draft law which seeks to ban inclusive writing from all legal texts, government documents and schools.

President Macron said that there was no problem with the default maleness of plural words. “In the French language, the masculine form is neutral”, he said.  

Hmm. Isn’t that precisely the problem? The grammatical default is masculine because for centuries the social and political power was assumed to be male.

Linguistic writing is a clumsy attempt to address that issue in written French. It involves, amongst other things, the cumbersome use of median dots or brackets.

A group of male and female students becomes les étudiant·es instead of les étudiants. The plural third person becomes a newly-coined hybrid word iels instead of ils or elles.

A recent university exam question read: “Les ont-iels le pouvoir en démocratie ?” (Do citizens hold power in a democracy?)

In the Senate this week, the centre-right sénatrice Pascale Gruny said that inclusive writing “enfeebles the French language by making it unreadable, unpronounceable and impossible to teach”. She won a large majority for her bill.

The Socialist senator Yan Chantrel dismissed the draft law as “unconstitutional, retrograde and reactionary. He said that it was “part of a long-standing conservative backlash against giving more visibility to women.”

In practise, the bill is unlikely to be approved, or even debated, by the National Assembly. The government is split.


The culture ministry takes the view that legislation on language is pointless or wrong (even though France already has laws to resist advance of English). The education ministry issued a formal circular two years ago which banned inclusive language from schools.

Like most things in contemporary politics (and not just in France) nuanced opinions are hard to find. The closed-minded grapple with the self-satisfied.

Inclusive writing is either a) a necessary advance towards gender equality or b) an ugly imposition by “les wokistes” on the purity of the French language.

Non-native French speakers should perhaps refrain from having an opinion. Here goes anyway.

I see no reason in principle why French should not adjust to changing social realities. Allowing there to be a “Madame la Présidente de la République” (when France gets around to electing one) makes good sense.

The problems arise because French is a gendered language.


Every noun is either masculine or feminine, preceded by “un” or “une”. Thus all “bébés” are grammatically masculine and all “victimes” are gramatically feminine. (The sociology of those grammatical labels is perhaps telling.)

In theory, at the second mention, even a female “bébé” is “il” and a male “victim” is “elle”.  French news reports can be very confusing to foreigners.

A second problem arises because traditional French has no generic third person plural pronoun like “they”.

A third problem arises because French feminists disagree with Anglo-Saxon feminists. English-speaking progressives have been trying for years to dump words like actress and authoress, because they are regarded as belittling

French progressives insist on professional women’s right to a feminised title - such as productrice or autrice.


Making French fully “inclusive” is therefore a nightmare. It produces an ugly form of fractured, written French, reminiscent of Orwellian Newspeak. It creates a fussy written language that cannot be spoken aloud.

On the other hand, defenders of “pure French” like Marine Le Pen shamelessly use and abuse English words like “wokiste”.

French has been an officially policed language since the 17th century. Such policing is not always effective and is often hypocritical

Time and commonsense will decide which parts of inclusive French survive - “iels” may have a shout. The silly “median dot” is, I hope, doomed.


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Sally Bostley 2023/11/02 14:52
Adding dots and brackets makes learning French a nightmare. Or should I say more of a nightmare than it already is with all the endings that are not pronounced and bizarre spelling? Just leave it alone. Please!
Mary Sankey 2023/11/02 11:23
Fascinating explanation of the background for this proposed legislation. As if trying to learn to read, write, and speak French isn't hard enough already!
Meredith Wheeler 2023/11/02 09:49
Brilliant column. Thank you. My favorite sentence: "The closed-minded grapple with the self-satisfied." A description that has wide application....

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