About 50,000 campaigners for French regional language rights have called on UNESCO to grant them "cultural asylum" and accused the French state of systematic linguistic discrimination amid growing concern for the future of indigenous languages such as Breton and Occitan.
Protesters gathered in Quimper, Toulouse, the Pays Basque, in Alsace, in Catalonia, as well as outside the UN cultural organization’s Paris headquarters last month carrying banners that said: “French state is killing our languages."
They included representatives from an alliance of groups also representing Basque, Catalan, Alsatian, and Corsican speakers as well as the indigenous languages of France's overseas territories.
Alexis Quentin, the secretary general of EBLUL France, a Europe-wide network of language campaigners, said a delegation meeting UNESCO officials had been “well received”.
“They insisted that they need UNESCO to acknowledge that French regional languages are in a poor situation because France does not respect international conventions and treaties,” Quentin told the Al Jazeera news network. “We want UNESCO to officially ask the government to pay attention to the protests in this country.”
France is a signatory to several UNESCO treaties protecting diversity of languages, including the 2001 Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity, which calls on members to safeguard linguistic heritage and promote multilingualism.
However, it has yet to ratify the European Charter for Regional and Minority Languages, which is considered the main legislation promoting the rights of less-commonly-used language speakers across Europe. Ratification of the charter is required for all new members of the European Union.
The protest was timed to coincide with the first anniversary of French President Francois Hollande's inauguration to highlight his failure to make good on a campaign promise to ratify the regional languages charter. In a statement, Colette Capdevielle, a member of the National Assembly for Hollande's Socialist Party in the Basque region of southern France, said the policy had been dropped because of the negative opinion of the Council of State, the country's highest judicial body, which ruled in 1999 that ratification of the charter would “violate the constitutional principles of the indivisibility of the Republic.”
The status of French as the country's only official language is enshrined in article two of the French constitution which states: “The language of the Republic shall be French.”
There are about five million people in France who are fluent in one of the country's regional languages use of which was once forbidden.
UNESCO'S atlas of endangered languages lists 26 under threat in France, including Breton, once the world's most widely used Celtic language with about one million speakers just a century ago, and Occitan, a group of related dialects that were once the predominant language across southern France.
Since coming to power, Hollande's government has reiterated its recognition of the need for fresh measures to protect and promote France's regional languages. Vincent Peillon, the country’s education minister, said that the government remained in favor of ratifying the European charter, but acknowledged that it faced legal difficulties.
Aurelie Filippetti, the French culture minister, also created an advisory committee on languages in March, and said that ratification of the charter was only one step among those required to encourage linguistic pluralism.
“We need to break once and for all with the idea that learning a language involves unlearning another,” said Filippetti. “And reconnect with the idea that it is a plurality of languages, alongside French, that can give our country its true face, a nation open to the world, confident in its rich heritage, making its history key in adapting to the challenges of the future.”
Meanwhile, on the French island of Corsica, the local Assembly adopted the proposed statute for equality of status and revitalization of the Corsican language by 36 votes for, 11 abstentions, and no votes against. The regulation does not have an immediate legal effect as it still has to be approved by the French National Assembly. T his may prove to be the catalyst that creates co-official status and a legal basis for revitalization for French regional languages.