The German Plot Against French!

An interesting post at Language Log, about the position of minority languages/dialects in France. Traditionally, France before the Revolution was more of a geographical expression than a state in the modern sense, to adapt the famous phrase about pre-Bismarckian Germany. Highly diverse regions, with little in common except allegiance to a distant Parisian king; the revolution changed all that, or more specifically, the 19th century did, with the army’s numbered, nationally-recruited regiments, the uniform school curriculum, the administrative structure of prefects and subprefects all answering to the same ministry in Paris.

So, the very idea of a minority speech is quite a difficult one for a state that is still very, very centralised. Just how difficult this is for some people can be measured by the response of Jean-Claude Monneret, a member of the Academy, no less:

… [T]outes les langues n’ont pas la même dignité. […] [O]n ne peut mettre sur le même plan ce qui est une grande langue de culture et un dialecte appauvri. Existe-t-il un Rousseau en occitan, un Tocqueville en basque, un Balzac en ch’ti …, un Stendhal en breton, un Montesquieu en catalan? (“All languages do not have the same worthiness. […] We can’t put on the same level a great language of culture and an impoverished dialect. Is there a Rousseau in Occitan, a Tocqueville in Basque, a Balzac in Ch’ti …, a Montesquiue in Catalan?”)

And you thought you couldn’t have colonialism in one country. Of course, Montesquieu and Rousseau lived before the Revolution, so didn’t do their army service or go to one of Jules Ferry’s schools by definition. And Rousseau was Swiss; so what kind of French did either of them actually speak, as opposed to writing? I don’t know; but this seems incredibly anti-scholarly, as if we just assumed Shakespeare spoke BBC English.

Cette question des langues régionales en Europe est aussi à penser dans le cadre d’une géopolitique bruxelloise d’inspiration germanique. Il y a aujourd’hui en Europe des groupes d’intérêt qui militent pour un reformatage de l’Europe sur un modèle politique impérial. La manoeuvre qui consiste à encourager la reconnaissance de toutes les langues minoritaires n’est qu’un leurre, une stratégie oblique qui vise en fait à déconstruire, à détricoter les nations européennes autres que l’Allemagne, qui toutes incorporent des groupes d’appartenance linguistiquement minoritaires.

Ainsi, subtilement, on ne s’attaque pas frontalement aux États, mais on commence par une reconnaissance linguistique. C’est très «démocratique», ça semble n’engager à rien. Mais à partir de là, c’est le toboggan.

(“This question of regional languages in Europe should also be considered in the context of a German-inspired geopolitical initiative in Brussels. Today in Europe there are interest groups who agitate for reforming Europe on an imperial political model. The manoeuvre of encouraging the recognition of all minority languages is just a decoy, an oblique strategy that in fact aims to deconstruct, to de-knit European nations other than Germany, who all include groups belonging to linguistic minorities.

Thus, subtly, one doesn’t attack the member states directly, but one begins with linguistic recognition. This is very “democratic”, it doesn’t seem to amount to anything. But after that, it’s a slippery slope.”)

Wow. That’s pretty damn crazy…but the interesting bit to me is the assumption that Germany is linguistically homeogenous and a centralised, unitary state. To believe that, you need to know absolutely nothing whatsoever about German, German history, or the current German state. It is not difficult to find bits of Germany where you might need to ask people to speak hochdeutsch; it’s happened to me. And Germany is the most federal state in Europe after Switzerland; even the Wilhelmine empire was so federal that each Land had its own army, even if this didn’t mean much in practice as only the Prussians had a general staff.

Particularism is still a major force in German (and EU) politics today; the minister-president of Baden-Wurttemberg practically ran his own foreign policy through the European Convention, as I recall. So what planet is this guy on?

21 thoughts on “The German Plot Against French!

  1. Simple. Germany is already federalized, already de-knitted. The condition of Germany in a hypothetical federal Europe looks a lot more like the status quo than the condition of France. Germany could be integrated into a federal Europe. Other states would have to be disintegrated before they could be integrated.

  2. I believe you are begging the question a bit. In a German (or American) context, Federalism and support for cultural pluralism are understood to be important checks on the excercise of unlimited power by the national government.

    In the case of France, such pluralism (since the Revolution) has been understood as a major impediment to the exercise of liberty (properly understood). In brief, the French insistence on cultural and linguistic uniformity is seen as an essential condition for the effective participation of the citizenry in a republic because it allows the emergence of the follow feeling and universality of perspective that are touchstones for the legitimacy of republican government.

    Many Frenchmen associate Federalism and linguistic pluralism with the atavistic, irrational and unjust class divisions and perceived arbitrary powers of the ancien regime. The reference to “un modèle politique impérial” is therefore not just a slap at the authority of the EU but a reference to the lack of republicanism (as the French understand it) in EU policy that undermines its legitimacy.

    So the argument made may not be simply ignorant of German history; instead, it implicitly rejects the political understanding of history your criticisms implicitly accept.

  3. But his argument seems to be that the Germans are working out the privilege of being the only state WITHOUT particularist minorities.

    For me, anyway, the whole doctrine of la republique… is too much like the state… and I’m a social democrat!

  4. I’ve always wondered when this would blow up in the French government’s faces. After all, France is strongly for the support of minority languages in Turkey for example (strong Armenian lobby) but against it in France. At some point, France will have to play by the same rules as the rest of Europe. We’ll see how long it takes them to grow up.

  5. Some French people occasionally go into Germanophobic rants.. Like Mitterrand in his memoirs, never ever opposed German reunification, so sir-ee I don’t mind 80 million Germans, but still notes that unification poses a ‘demographic challenge’ for France.. One which, he writes happily, looks positive because of higher fertility..

  6. Each nation has a unique history that was an essential aspect of national unification. Now, in the face of the EU, the unification of the Member State is disintegrating as smaller groups that did not receive the autonomy that they desired within their State search for new arenas of autonomous expression, for example the EU.

  7. Cyrus speak the truth:

    “Simple. Germany is already federalized, already de-knitted. The condition of Germany in a hypothetical federal Europe looks a lot more like the status quo than the condition of France. Germany could be integrated into a federal Europe. Other states would have to be disintegrated before they could be integrated.”

    Like Cyrus says, I do think the centralized nature of Britain and France bother the decentralized Germans.

  8. The EBLUL (European Bureau for Lesser-Used Languages) acknowledges five minority languages in Germany: Danish, Frisian, Sorbian, Lower German, and Romani.

    Just sayin’.

  9. What criteria does the EBLUL use? Maybe I’m hallucinating it, but I could have sworn there’s quite a lot of Turkish spoken round these parts. (Berlin-Neukoelln).

  10. Language is very important for french people.
    Because we are very diverse since the beginning, we are not an ethnic state like other european country, we emphasis on language.
    For theses reasons multiculturalism and federalism are impossible in France.
    On this issue we cannont agree with Germanic and Anglo-saxons people that have an oppossite point of view.

  11. This seems to be part of the fundamental problem the EU faces. You have 27 different nations with different majority languages, different values, different histories, and bloody regional conflict still within the memory of a not insignificant portion of the population. You simply cannot take so many disparate parts and create a central government from them in the space of a few decades. It took the United States a century and a major civil war to work out the differences between a far more homogeneous group of member states. The United States didn’t even really begin to resemble the kind of government the EU is striving for until income taxes were added to the constitution and WWI kicked off some jingoistic national unity. Even then the legacy of federalism continues to be a major point of contention today.

  12. I’ve noticed this EU glorification of regions, but Germany is not exempt from what I’ve seen.

    When the EU sponsors their little cultural festivals, food fairs and traveling public exhibits, it’s always about the glories and flavors of the subnational parts: Bayern, Campania, Normandie and Galicia, NOT Germany, Italy, France and Spain.

  13. JLS,

    It’s not just the Germans and the Anglo-Saxons, you know. The list of countries who have not ratified the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages is small and includes places like Monaco, Andorra, Turkey, and of course France. The French position on this is extreme and increasingly out of step with the rest of Europe. Blaming those perfidious Anglo-Saxons and Germans isn’t going to cut it, especially when almost every other country in Europe allows public education in minority indigenous languages.

  14. “Like Cyrus says, I do think the centralized nature of Britain and France bother the decentralized Germans.”


    Granted, Germans (and Europeans more generally for that matter) had a rather poor experience with a centralized German state, but I don’t think that means that German leaders are intent on pushing apart other European states. Scots and Flemings, for example, may be doing that very well of their own accord.

    On the other hand, I have seen a fairly broad tendency for people from a given country to see the EU as being much like that country (with a limited number of deviations). The presumption that the Union is like a particular country goes a certain way toward actually making the EU like that country. French people see grand projects; British see a large zone of open trade and the rule of law; Poles see a community of patriots; and so forth. The more power a country has, though, the more it can actually make the EU like itself. So the Maltese characteristics (whatever they might be) are easily overlooked. But the German characteristics — planning, consensus, federal, regional — are more prevalent.

  15. How do you think federalism could benefit from european integration? The opposite seems to be the case to me. States of a sovereign state is a tried concept found to work well.
    Substates in a federal member of the EU on the other risk becoming really ridiculous. There’s simply to little left to decide for so fine-grained a split.

  16. Let’s keep our cool here. Mr Monneret is not an Académicien Français. He’s just a guy who wrote a letter to Le Devoir with an opinion that was provocative enough to be published in the Opinions page. Bear in mind that language is a permanent red-hot issue in Québec, much more than it is in France.

    If you google “Jean-Claude Monneret” on Google France you will get precious few hits, and most of them are reactions to this letter in Le Devoir.

    Conclusion: This person represents only himself and his opinion doesn’t carry any more weight than yours or mine. He’s probably enjoying the unwarranted attention he is getting right now.

    France actually has had an ongoing debate about regional languages for at least 30 years. The Académiciens stand on the side of the traditional preeminence of French – no surprise here, as this is practically their job description. But their discourse on the topic is nowhere as paranoid and ill-informed as Mr Monneret’s.

  17. For theses reasons multiculturalism and federalism are impossible in France.

    No need to be too pessimistic. France isn’t some monolithic alien nation-state that would spontaneously disappear the moment it allows some decentralisation/federalism/multiculturalism… Despite what some French people seem to believe.

    When the EU sponsors their little cultural festivals, food fairs and traveling public exhibits, it’s always about the glories and flavors of the subnational parts: Bayern, Campania, Normandie and Galicia, NOT Germany, Italy, France and Spain.

    That’s kind of because the nations are quite good at glorifying themselves, thank you very much. Maybe a more pertinent question would be why all those little cultural festivals need to look to the EU for funds, as if the central governments were afraid of diversity or something.
    (that’s a bit unfair, though, those funds usually come from all over the place).

    I agree with Cyrus that Monneret’s problem is probably Germany’s federalism, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he didn’t know about Germany’s regional languages either. I know I’d never have heard of them if I hadn’t gone to a school that put a lot of emphasis on minority languages and cultures.

  18. Part I Article 1-d
    “territory in which the regional or minority language is used” means the geographical area in which the said language is the mode of expression of a number of people justifying the adoption of the various protective and promotional measures provided for in this Charter;

    Part II Article 7-1-d
    the facilitation and/or encouragement of the use of regional or minority languages, in speech and writing, in public and private life;

    and most important the whole Article 9, in peticular:

    # The Parties undertake:

    1. not to deny the validity of legal documents drawn up within the State solely because they are drafted in a regional or minority language; or
    2. not to deny the validity, as between the parties, of legal documents drawn up within the country solely because they are drafted in a regional or minority language, and to provide that they can be invoked against interested third parties who are not users of these languages on condition that the contents of the document are made known to them by the person(s) who invoke(s) it;

    First, in britany, breton is spoken by some, it’s also spoken by roughly 2% of parisians. (Paris is the city in France where breton is the most spoken). It’s culturaly weird that Paris shall have to take protective measures for breton.

    Second, the public/official use is what is problematic. The teaching of french in britany was rather violent (“it’s forbiden to spit or speak breton” spitting and speaking breton given the same value), that’s well known.

    Though, it had its benefit :
    – britany has gone from one of the poorest region to one of the richest.
    – the value of a common language and the traction given by a sufficient number of people speaking a given language is understood.

    The result is that it’s considered impolite in britany to speak a language in a conversation that only a part of the group understand (meaning that tourist who speak french and sudendly speak their mother language irks those who speak breton).

    It also means that the very idea of contract in breton that only one party could easily understand, or which would alter concurrence between lawyer (those who speak the language) is considered like utter stupidity.

    What should be noted is that breton is teached, it’s possible to get course in highschool as a second language or university. Their is also private school for the parents wanting that their childs get an education in breton. The language is valued, though the equal rights of citizen (treated the same) is more important.

    Basicaly, the charter goes too far, giving value to legal document (and potentially seriously increasing administrative costs).

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