|There are about 200,000 Breton speakers in northwestern France [Creative Commons]|
When Tangi Louarn casts his vote in next month’s French presidential election he will be forced to do so in a language that he does not recognise as his own.
A resident of the rugged peninsula region of Brittany in northwestern France, Louarn is one of about 200,000 speakers of Breton, once the world’s most commonly spoken Celtic language but now recognised as .
Despite its precarious situation, Breton has no formal status in France. It is not offered as a language of education in the public school system, the state makes no provision for regional language media, and it is not used in government or public services.
Once home to a vibrant multitude of tongues, the monolingualism of modern France is enshrined in article two of the country’s constitution, rooted in the revolutionary principles of 1789, which reads: “The language of the Republic shall be French.”
Yet Louarn, the president of Kevre Breizh, a Breton language activist group, says that regional language speakers are still waiting for their human rights to to be respected.
“Breton is my language. It is a part of my identity. Yet ‘Liberte, egalite, fraternite’ is only for people speaking French. When you speak another language you do not have equality.”
While estimates of exact numbers vary, campaigners say there are more than five million people in France with fluency in a regional language.
Major language areas include Occitania, a broad swathe of southern France stretching from the Alps to the Pyrenees where an estimated three million people speak various dialects of Occitan; the Basque and Catalan regions of the southwest, with nearly 200,000 speakers; Alsace in the east, with about 900,000 Alsatian speakers, and Corsica, with about 150,000 Corsican speakers.
On March 31, regional language speakers in 10 cities across France will stage the country’s to protest for their linguistic rights to be recognised.
Their demands include a change to the constitution to grant official status to regional languages, measures to make the languages “co-official” in the areas where they are spoken, and for France to ratify the European Charter for Regional and Minority Languages.
Davyth Hicks, chief of Eurolang, a Brussels-based NGO that forms part of the European Language Equality Network (ELEN), said that France was one of only a handful of states in Europe not to have ratified the charter, which is considered the key legislation protecting and promoting linguistic diversity across the continent.
“France is a rogue state in terms of how it promotes its languages. It just has not kept up with European development“
– Davyth Hicks, head of Eurolang
While neighbours such as the UK and Spain grant co-official status to languages such as Welsh, Basque, Catalan and Galician, Hicks said France remained a “pariah”.
“France is a rogue state in terms of how it promotes its languages. It just has not kept up with European development. It says all these things about the promotion of human rights and equality elsewhere in the world, but meanwhile, on its doorstep, languages such as Breton have become seriously endangered,” Hicks said.
Philippe Marliere, a professor of French and European politics at University College London, said France’s antipathy towards regional languages could be traced to the centuries-old centralising tendencies of the state, beginning under the absolute monarchy and accelerated after the 1789 revolution.
“The French revolutionaries wanted one regime over one territory, but they also thought that to make the unity of the nation a reality you needed one language,” Marliere said. “So language was an important element in the idea of building a French nation of equals and citizens.”
But while regional languages were once actively suppressed, with children as recently as the mid-20th century facing punishment for speaking them in the schoolyard or classroom, Marliere said there had been a relaxation of attitudes in recent decades.
Nowadays, for instance, language is promoted as part of Brittany’s culture, with bilingual street signs and private schools offering a Breton education for parents who want their children to learn the language, while many residents take pride in the Celtic heritage that sets their region apart from the rest of France.
“If we talk about languages such as Breton or Occitan, I think there has been a complete shift now. It used to be devalued, now it is very much valued,” said Marliere. “It is a complete change of mentality. Before it was seen as completely backward; now it is seen as something that will enrich your personality, or your children’s personalities.”
A campaign to gain a measure of symbolic recognition for regional languages also resulted in a line being added to the constitution in 2008 acknowledging them as part of France’s heritage. But Louarn said further action was needed to ensure their survival as living languages, rather something belonging to the country’s past.
With a majority of Breton speakers now in their 80s and with few young people learning the language, he said the state needed to take urgent measures, including full constitutional recognition and subsequent investment in public education, regional language media and public services, to reverse the decline.
“All regional languages in France are in danger. They could disappear as social languages. Perhaps they can stay in museums, but not in real life. In Brittany in the middle of the 20th century there were a million people who spoke Breton; now there are 200,000. So the number is going down because of the policy of the state,” Louarn said.
Alexis Quentin, of the Institute of Occitan Studies in Paris, said France needed to evolve from its centralist foundations towards something “more federalist, more open” and more relaxed about diversity.
“Centralism is like a weight for France nowadays. And I believe that the Republic could evolve like that, and be more democratic with rights for regions and minorities,” he said. “It is an important point for democracy in France. And having only one language is more nationalistic.”
While French President Nicolas Sarkozy has said that he would not ratify the charter on regional languages, several of his opponents in the April 22 first round vote have expressed support for greater linguistic rights.
On a campaign visit to Corsica last week, Francois Hollande, the Socialist candidate who leads Sarkozy according to latest polls, said he was committed to ratifying the European charter and providing greater support for regional language education, media and cultural activities.
Francois Bayrou, the candidate for the centrist Democratic Movement, who comes from the Pyrenees, even spoke the Occitan dialect of Bearnais in vowing to fight for regional language speakers at a rally in the southern city of Toulouse.
But Philippe Marliere said any president or politician who wanted to amend the constitution to recognise regional languages faced an “almost impossible” task in mobilising the required two-thirds majorities in both the National Assembly and the Senate.
“There are still die-hard republicans in France and overall – let’s say among politicians, political commentators, journalists – they are still pretty much the majority. If one starts acknowledging that there is not one unitary language but several then it’s opening the Pandora’s box to all sorts of issues. And, of course, the French fear is that there will be ethnic and religious claims made on behalf of minority groups, and then that will be the end of the French Republic.”
Such a campaign would also face opposition from France’s Constitutional Council, which blocked previous efforts to ratify the European charter, and the Academie Francaise, the influential institution set up to formalise French in the 17th century, which remains the guardian of the national language and emphatically opposed to any challenge to its supremacy.
“There will always be people against it and I can see a very passionate campaign of people defending the status quo. So no government, no president, left or right, would have the stomach to do that,” said Marliere.
But Marliere added that he he could envision a more piecemeal shift in French attitudes, in which greater awareness of regional languages and the benefits of bilingualism combined with external pressure from the European Union would push France towards a more progressive position.
“I think that change will come in practice, but in a very pragmatic way. There will be pressure on France to be more liberal and to accommodate more regional languages, and it will do so, but in a very ad hoc manner and not by revising the constitution.”
Davyth Hicks also sees reason for hope in the way that new technology and social media have opened up new spheres for regional languages among a new generation of speakers beyond the traditional domain of the state.
“They key to the future of any language is the young people,” he said. “Youngsters have got to see that they can go out there and use their language, and if they can see that it is there on Facebook and on the internet and on their iPhone then we can steal a march.”
In the short term, however, responsibility for the survival of France’s regional languages hangs heavily on the shoulders of a current generation of speakers determined to pass them on.
“I live in Paris, and come from a family that is both from the north and the south of France. So, speaking Occitan is to claim back one half of me,” said Alexis Quentin.
“For me, it means to talk with my grandmother, to talk with my relatives in Auvergne. It is a part of me. It is normal that a state should secure this, and that our heritage should not be lost forever. And it is important for me to give this heritage to my children.”