Breton and Gallo languages still legally unprotected as French upper house vetoes historical constitutional acknowledgment of France's linguistic diversity.
”Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose”, may have said Breton and Gallo language supporters as the French Senate refused to pass on 18th June 2008 a historical amendment to the French Constitution which would have acknowledged France's linguistic diversity.
The project of constitutional reform had been initially approved by the French National Assembly on 22nd May 2008 as a pack of measures to “modernise the institutions of the Republic”. One of the proposed amendments gave a mention to France's minority languages at the end of the Title 1 of the French Constitution, which would have acknowledged that “Regional languages are part of France's cultural heritage.”
Besides the French language, there are over a dozen minority languages spoken in France. Breton and Gallo were Brittany's native languages until they started being gradually replaced by French from the 16th century.
Breton language supporters warmly welcomed the historical recognition initially approved by the French National Assembly on 22nd May, acknowledging it was a small but important step forward for a State with a long tradition of hostility against minority languages.
But news soon turned sour for the jubilant Breton language campaigners as the Académie Française, France's official authority for the French language, condemned the recognition saying that minority languages posed a threat to the French language.
And as the amendment approved by the Assembly was sent to the French Senate for ratification, the Upper House refused to pass it in a surprise move that sparked anger and resignation amongst Breton and Gallo language supporters.
Breton joy after initial historic Assembly approval
There were high expectations in Brittany as the French National Assembly met on 7th May 2008 to debate about the French Constitution and France's regional languages.
Thousands followed online the debate launched by conservative AM Jean-Luc Warsmann, from the governing party UMP (Union pour un Mouvement Populaire), in a move that was considered “historic” by many for the topic had not entered the French debating chamber since the 1960s.
The topic was presented to an almost empty Assembly as 2/3 of the French parlamentarians decided not to attend the debate.
As expected, French Culture Minister Christine Albanel announced at the debate that France would not ratify the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, a 1992 European treaty for the protection of minority languages which has been ratified by all EU members with the exception of France.
The voting result of the debate was announced on 22nd May and few were expecting to hear that the French National Assembly had approved a constitutional amendment acknowledging France's linguistic diversity.
The amendment would give a mention to France's minority languages at the end of the Title 1 of the French Constitution, which would stipulate that “Regional languages are part of France's cultural heritage.”
Although the amendment would not create any legal rights for minority language speakers, it was warmly welcomed by regional language campaigners who saw it as an important step in their struggle to obtain formal recognition for their languages.
Breton conservative AM Marc Le Fur, a long-time campaigner for the Breton language, said: “This is a very emotional moment which achieves many years of work we have been doing at the National Assembly.”
“I am glad our regional languages will be mentioned at the Title 1 of the French Constitution, for the word 'Equality' does not mean 'Uniformity'”, said the UMP politician from Côtes-d'Armor.
Finistère AM Jean-Jacques Urvoas, of the opposition party Parti Socialiste, told “this is a significant and historical step forward.”
Ms. Mona Bras, spokesperson for the UDB (Union Démocratique Bretonne), a coalition partner in Brittany's Le Drian government, highlighted that the constitutional recognition was not assuring yet any legal rights for minority language speakers.
Ms. Bras called for Région Bretagne, Brittany's devolved government, to obtain executive competence in language policy “in order to be able to provide the Breton language with bilingual schools, institutional use, and a public TV as they have in many other places in Europe.”
French Academy condemns minority language recognition
As Breton campaigners were still celebrating the historic French Assembly move to recognise France's regional languages, the members of the Académie Française unanimously condemned any constitutional recognition saying that minority languages posed a threat to the French language.
The Académie Française is France's official authority for the French language and is composed by forty members, who call themselves “les immortels“ (the immortals).
The French Academy declared that any recognition of the regional languages would mean “a denial of the Republic” and would “threaten the equal access of everybody to Public Administration and Justice”.
That was contradicted by conservative AM Jean-Luc Warsmann, who had introduced the debate at the French National Assembly and had himself admitted that “this will not create any rights such as the right to ask for translations of public documents into regional languages.”
“This is only about mentioning in our Constitution that regional languages do exist in France, as it has been requested by members of all political parties”, said the UMP politician.
A CSA poll published by Breton newspaper Ouest France on June 18th showed that 68% of the French population agreed with a constitutional recognition of France's regional languages.
The Académie Française was also contradicted by the French Culture Minister, Christine Albanel, who assured that any acknowledgment of France's regional languages in the French Constitution did not provide any right to use those languages in the public administration.
Breton politicians of all parties unanimously rejected the Académie's declaration.
French Senate vetoes minority language recognition
Breton and Gallo language supporters were left stunned as the French Senate decided to refuse the proposed amendment to the French Constitution which had been initially approved by the French National Assembly on 22nd May.
The French upper house vetoed the acknowledgment of France's linguistic diversity on 18th June in a surprise move that was not expected since the amendment had been passed by a cross-party majority at the National Assembly.
Reactions to the French Senate veto ranged from deep disappointment to outrage, as regional language campaigners had already taken in the historic approval passed by the French Assembly on 22nd May.
Marc Le Fur AM, Breton language campaigner and vicepresident of the French Assembly regretted the veto and said: “Today, the Senate, which I believed to represent the regions of France, has blocked an initiative which the National Assembly had approved almost by consensus.”
Mr. Le Fur qualified the Senate veto as an “anachronism” and told that “We will keep working to convince the senators that the languages of France are the languages of the territories they are supposed to be representing.”
Mireille Dubois, spokesperson for the UMP group at the Breton devolved government said: “We regret the decision and call on the senators to review their position”. The conservative politician ask the Senate to understand the refused constitutional amendment as a step to “save our regional languages, and not as a threaten to French language.”
Mona Bras, spokesperson for the UDB, ironised that “Instead of receiving our tourists with a 'Welcome to Brittany' we will soon be able to welcoming them with a 'It is forbidden to speak Breton'.“
Solidarity of Regions and Peoples, a French electoral alliance of nine regional parties, reminded that France has signed the UNESCO Convention on Languages and Intangible Heritage and wondered “What is the value of France's signature?”
The regional coalition party said that “As France takes over the Presidency of the EU on July 1st, the Senate veto puts France against European and international conventions on cultural rights.”
Breton and Gallo decline as languages not officially recognised
Although French is the only official language of the French Republic, there are several regional languages spoken in France such as Breton, Gallo, Corsican, Basque, Flemish, Occitan, Catalan or German.
Despite being the European state with more linguistic diversity within its own borders, France remains the only EU country to not have ratified the 1992 European treaty for the protection of minority languages.
French Culture Minister Christine Albanel reiterated during the 22nd May constitutional reform debate that France would not ratify the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages on the grounds that the charter is incompatible with constitutional principles such as “the indivisibility of the French Republic.”
Of all the EU member states, France is the country that has got most infraction proceedings for not respecting EU directives.
The latest international request for France to recognise her regional languages came from the United Nations Committeee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights on 16th May 2008.
The UN Committee highlighted that “the lack of official recognition is causing a steady decline of France's regional languages” and urged the French government to ratify several international conventions for the protection of minorities such as the European Charter for Minority Languages.
Once the native language of western Brittany, Breton language has been declining fast since the 20th century.
In 1983 there were just about 600,000 Breton speakers, and only fifteen years later the number had plunged down to 300,000.
There are no statistics available about the number of Gallo language speakers, which is believed to be in even faster decline than Breton.