France one step closer to ratifying regional languages charter

The French Parliament has removed an important barrier to the ratification of the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, but it will require amending the country's constitution, which is never an easy task, EURACTIV France reports.

After being blocked for 14 years, French MPs approved a draft law that could open the way for the charter's ratification.

Out of 510 MPs in parliament, 361 voted in favour of the draft law tabled by the Socialists, while 149 voted against.

The vote opens the door to a ratification of the charter, promised by President François Hollande in his 2012 electoral programme. The draft law will have to go through a vote in the Senate too, but not only.

Constitutional incompatibility

France signed the charter in 1999, but the ratification was blocked due to a constitutional issue over regional languages such as Catalan, Basque and Breton.

Article two of the country's Constitution stipulates that the “language of the Republic is French”.

The provision leaves no room for an active recognition of regional languages as proposed in the charter. Hence, the only possibility is to amend the constitution, which every government has postponed until now.

The vote has allowed the government to sound out the Parliament's intentions and check whether a broad enough consensus can emerge in support of the charter. Any amendment to the constitution of France requires either a referendum or a three-fifths majority vote of the two houses gathered in a congress, which is the government's chosen option.

Conservative opponents have promised to fight the charter's adoption. Guy Geoffroy, a centre-right MP from the UMP party called for a rejection of the draft text. “You have invented the preliminary round to the constitutional revision,” he said.

But a large majority of parties approved the text. Centrist MP Thierry Benoit, called on his colleagues to approve the ratification: “We are in favour of a Europe of the peoples that protects regional and minority languages,” he said, adding that the social protests that took place in Brittany last year “show the need for recognition of the French regions”.

For Green MP Paul Molac, ratification is a prerequisite for an efficient policy in favour of regional and minority languages.

“They are neither recognised nor protected in our French law,” he said. “The Charter can give the necessary legislative basis for the establishment of a law in favour of these languages.”

European pressure

France is amongst the few European countries that have not yet ratified the charter. Out of 47 Council of Europe members, 25 ratified it, while a great number of those who did not are not affected by regional languages issues, such as Monaco, San Marino and Andorra.

“Today, this charter is a prerequisite for EU membership,” Molac said.

On 11 September 2013, the European Parliament almost unanimously adopted a resolution which encourages member states to develop action plans to promote endangered languages. It called on countries such as France to ratify the charter.

The European Union is committed to promoting multilingualism and aims to have every EU citizen speak at least two foreign languages. However, in practice the websites of many EU institutions and agencies limit themselves to one or two working languages.

The question of language-use is sometimes a contentious one. For instance, attempts to create a European patent using only the English, French and German languages have been opposed by Italy and Spain as discriminatory.

The predominance of English has been criticised in particular by French-speaking groups such as the Francophonie and the Association pour la Défense de la Langue Française (DLF).

The latter has often granted a satirical prize to EU officials – including Romano Prodi and Jean-Claude Trichet – for "overuse" of English.

  • By spring 2014: French Senate due to examine the draft law

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