French Language

Toubon Law and the Languages of France



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The 1994 Toubon Law (94-665) is a French federal law which mandates the use of French in all government, commercial, or public contexts. It replaces the Bas-Laurio Law (1975), which had fallen into disuse. Its popular name comes from Jacques Toubon, the Minister of Culture who proposed the law and was in power when it passed.

Background to the Toubon Law

Article 2 of the French Constitution mandates the French language as the official language of France. A 2008 constitutional law adds Article 75-1, which states that "Regional languages are part of France's heritage."

The focus on French as the official language of France goes back to the French Revolution. At that time, most French citizens did not speak French. Instead, they spoke regional languages, such as Occitan.

After the revolution, the First Republic decided that the only way all French citizens could have full democratic rights was if every French citizen spoke Parisian French, the language of government. However, there was some delay in instituting any policy change, because the new French government was short of money and soon ran out of time as well.

In spite of the delay, the determination to establish French as the language of the Republic never went away. A few wars and changes of government later, a campaign of education in the French language, combined with determined eradication of regional languages, was instituted in the late 1880s.

This policy did not effectively change until the 1950s, when some of the regional languages were finally recognized and given the right to exist. However, most French federal governments still saw all languages other than French as an undesirable handicap on France's strength, both domestically and on the world stage.

Globalization, European Union policy, and immigration further complicate France's language policies. The Academie Francaise, which is the final authority on the pure French language, has struggled against English loan-words for decades. Immigration from North Africa and Turkey has created language ghettos where Berber, Maghrebi Arabic, or Turkish is the dominant language, French official policy notwithstanding.

This combination of factors often results in foreign words and culture replacing French words and culture. Thus, it is perceived by many French citizens as an attack on French culture, in much the same way that the growing influence of Spanish in the U.S. is perceived by many Americans as an attack on American culture. In response, Jacques Toubon proposed the Toubon Law.

Restrictions imposed by the Toubon Law

Under the Toubon Law, "French shall be the language of instruction, work, trade and exchanges and of the public services." The law is intended to apply to every part of life which impacts the public, with almost no exceptions.

The Toubon Law requires all government correspondence, including all government contracts, to be written in French. This initially created some difficulties in international financial transactions, where the default language had always been English.

The Toubon Law does allow translations of international contracts, where the translation is given equal weight with the French version. This does not violate the spirit of the Toubon Law, because its primary purpose is to prioritize the use of French, and only French, in France. It does not force the dominance of the French language beyond the borders of France.

However, the Toubon Law does go far beyond the halls of government. As a result of the Toubon Law, French is the mandatory language in all public spaces and all workplaces. It is the mandatory language of instruction in government-financed schools. Every advertisement must be written in French, and nearly all media must be delivered in French as well.

The Toubon Law also requires all brands and trademarks owned by a public corporation to be in French. The same applies to private corporations which are engaged in public service work. Foreign language loan-words are not acceptable where a French word already exists.

Exemptions from the Toubon Law

An initial list of exemptions was written into the Toubon Law. It was expanded in 1996, primarily to allow some flexibility when conducting international financial transactions.

The Toubon Law applies only in government, commercial, or public contexts. It does not apply to private, non-commercial communication. It does not apply to documents received from abroad or documents written specifically for foreigners.

Although all legal contracts and advertising in France must be written in French, they can be translated into other languages as well. This includes employment contracts. The translations must not convey more information or be more understandable than the French version.

Private schools are exempt from the Toubon Law. They may conduct some or all of their classes in languages other than French, as long as they receive no financial support from the French government. Students are still required to meet the academic requirements set out by the French government.

Religious ceremonies and any broadcast of a religious ceremony is exempt. Movies may be shown in their original language, without translation. Music may be sung in its original language.

Regional languages and French law

Under the Toubon Law, the same restrictions apply to regional languages as apply to international languages. However, there is slightly more freedom to broadcast in an officially recognized regional language than for any language which has not been recognized, regional or international.

The regional languages which are officially recognized by France are Alsatian, Catalan, Corsican, Breton, Gallo, and Occitan. Outside mainland France, Tahitian and some of the languages of New Caledonia are also officially recognized regional languages. Franco-Provencal, Lorraine Franconian, Basque, Dutch (West Flemish), and the Oil languages are not officially recognized regional languages of France.

France has signed the Council of Europe's Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, which gives some protection to regional minority languages. However, the charter has never been ratified by the French government, nor is any French government likely to ratify this charter in the near future. In fact, former French President Jacques Chirac has stated that any protection of regional or minority languages could end up conferring special rights to organized linguistic groups.

While the Bas-Laurio Law was the subject of a Commission inquiry about its legality under EU law, it was allowed to stand without amendments. The validity of the Toubon Law under EU law has not yet been determined.

More about this author: Michael Totten

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