The 1994 law relating to use of the French language : sketch for a socio-political analysis

Vincent Dubois, Professor of sociology and political science, University of Strasbourg, SAGE (UMR 7363), USIAS.

Under democratic regimes, state policy faces a possible contradiction between granting rights and guaranteeing liberties. This is a particularly difficult conundrum when it comes to language, as state intervention in this domain may be regarded as a threat to freedom of thought and freedom of speech. In this chapter, I consider the 1994 law on the use of the French language in light of this contradiction. The first part retraces the origins of contemporary policy on the French language, drawing on Gramsci, who argued that “every time the question of language surfaces in one way or another, it means that a series of other problems are coming to the fore.”. Such was the case in the mid-1960s, when the French government launched its first language policy programmes in the wake of the debates on “Frenglish” (franglais). The post-colonial context, the new balance of powers at the international level and internal social transformations such as the decline of the traditional bourgeoisie to the benefit of new Anglophone economic elites all contributed to the construction of the national language as a public problem. A new institution was created to defend the French language, laying the groundwork for other initiatives such as the creation of neologisms as substitutes for English words (e.g. “logiciel” in lieu of “software”), and a first law was passed in 1975 to preserve the use of the French language. In the early 1990s, debates on cultural exception and on European integration also raised the questions of national identity and of the future of French language. Previous language reforms during the preceding decade (like the 1990 spelling reform) and the internal political context, with a new right-wing government in power, had created favourable conditions for setting the French language on the governmental agenda. In the second part, I elaborate on the meaning on the law. First, I show that the law was meant to fulfil the symbolic functions of asserting the political determination to address the language issue and of raising awareness of it in public opinion. I investigate the multiple meanings of the bill, a mix of varied if not contradictory political and cultural orientations, from conservatism to left-wing anti-imperialism. I then show how this symbolic dimension eventually turned against the bill. The use of legislation as a policy instrument revealed the possible coercive aspects of state intervention. The polysemy of the bill, initially intended to draw support from various social groups, ended up causing multiple arguments. Not to mention political opponents on the left, a few of the main adversaries of the law came from the advertising sector, a growing part of the media, the most internationalised members of the scientific community, and the promoters of minority languages. These oppositions can be grouped into three main registers. The first is the argument of futility (Albert Hirschman), viewing the defence of the French language as a losing battle. The second register was characterized by the denunciation of authoritarian tendencies thought to be inherent in any state policy concerning language issues (in reference to the Newspeak in George Orwell’s 1984). The third and last register consisted in critical derision, which delegitimized the bill and the minister who supported it (Jacques Toubon) by ridiculing them. These controversies impacted the law, most directly with the referral to the Constitutional Council, which translated political arguments against the bill into legal ones. Illustrating the tension between the granting of rights and the guarantee of liberties, the Constitutional Council abrogated several clauses of the bill in reference to Article 11 of the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen granting freedom of thought and freedom of speech. Beyond the legal aspect of things, all of the controversies and arguments surrounding the law weakened its symbolic credit, and as a result in its impact, which precisely depended on the ability of the law to raise awareness of the ‘proper’ use of the national language in French citizens. Regardless of the practical question of enforcement, the law ended up having little impact on the use of language not so much because law is inevitably powerless, but chiefly because a number of social and political forces combined to undermine its symbolic effectivenessi.

i I want to thank Jean-Yves Bart (Excellence Initiative of the University of Strasbourg) for his careful reading of this text.

[Read the full paper in french]

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