Tuesday, July 24, 2012

France’s New President to ratify the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages?

by Jessica Nicholas |

François Hollande, France’s new President, has promised to ratify the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, guaranteeing protection and active support for regional languages in Europe.  Hollande’s campaign had vigorous support from groups advocating for official recognition of regional languages (such as Occitan and Breton) due to his expressed support for ratifying the Charter during his candidacy.  He did state, however, that the French language should be protected.

What is the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, and why has this question become a campaign issue?

The European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages (click here for full text in English) is a convention adopted by the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe in 1992.  (You can read the explanation on the Council of Europe’s website here.)

The Council of Europe summarizes it thus:

“The Charter is a convention designed on the one hand to protect and promote regional and minority languages as a threatened aspect of Europe’s cultural heritage and on the other hand to enable speakers of a regional or minority language to use it in private and public life.”

The regional and minority languages concerned are those that have a territory within the state in question, have a smaller population of speakers than the rest of the state, are not official languages of the state or any dialects thereof, and are not the languages of migrant groups.

Countries that ratify the Charter are subject to external oversight to make sure they are adequately meeting the conditions of the Charter.  They have to prove that they are taking action to promote their regional and minority languages, provide for the teaching of these languages, and facilitate their usage in private and public life.

It is precisely with this “public life” provision where the Charter conflicts with existing French law.

France signed it, but didn’t ratify it.  Why not?

In a divided government under conservative president Jacques Chirac and a leftist majority Parliament, France signed the Charter in 1999, making a series of declarations about how the French government would choose to interpret certain parts of the document.  Most particularly, they took issue with the Charter’s granting of rights to certain groups within France, which they interpreted to be contrary to the unity of the French people, and to its requirement that the State facilitate and encourage the use of the minority languages in the public sphere.

The Conseil Constitutionnel (France’s Supreme Court) decided not to ratify the Charter because they found it to be unconstitutional. (Click to read the original decision in French, and an English translation in PDF form).  The main conflict was between the Charter’s call for official, public use of the languages in question and the Constitution’s mandate that all official, public communication be conducted in French.

The conflicting statements in the Constitution (click for full text in French and English) are as follows:

Article 1:
“France shall be an indivisible, secular, democratic and social Republic. It shall ensure the equality of all citizens before the law, without distinction of origin, race or religion.”
Therefore, it would go against the Constitution to recognize separate groups within France under the law.

Article 2:
“The language of the Republic shall be French.”
Therefore, no other official status shall be granted to any other language.

Thus, the Conseil Constitutionnel decided to sign but not ratify the Charter:
“[T]he specified provisions of the Charter are inconsistent with the Constitution…Having regard to their nature, none of the other undertakings entered into by France is contrary to the Constitution, most of them, incidentally, doing no more than recognize practices that France has already implemented to promote regional languages.”

In other words, France signed the Charter because it looked nice but they didn’t actually have to change anything.

What changes are underway to allow France to ratify the Charter?

The French will need to change the Constitution to allow the Republic to be “divisible” and to permit other languages in addition to French to be used in public life. We’ll see what happens.

Jessica Nicholas is a PhD Candidate in the Department of French.  Specializing in French Linguistics, she has a particular interest in language ideologies, variation, and education.


The problem is that recognizing the rights of linguistic minorities is a double-edged sword,because often it's an open door to reverse discrimination. Here in Catalonia,Spain,it's us Spanish speakers who have no linguistic rights.

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