Only masculine ministers allowed in the French Cabinet

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The Independent Online
Should a French Cabinet minister always be a "le" even if, in other respects, she is a "la"? Yes, says the Academie francaise, the 362- year-old police force for purity of the French language.

In an open letter to President Jacques Chirac, the Academy has rebuked female members of the Jospin government for insisting on the title "Madame la Ministre", even in official publications. Nothing in their ministerial powers, the Academy thunders, "confers on them the right to amend, by their own will, the grammar and usages of the French language".

In French a mouse is always une souris, even if he is a male mouse, declares the Academy. A frog is always une grenouille even when he is a male. Thus, it is clear that a French Cabinet minister must always be un ministre, even if she is a woman. "Le ministre" is a masculine word in French; the gender of the minister is irrelevant.

The issue has been made more pressing by a record eight women in the Jospin Cabinet. The Academiciens, sometimes known as the Immortals, are writers and scholars elected for life to pronounce on, among other things, proper grammatical usage. They include two women who have agreed never to be called Academiciennes.

They suggest female Cabinet members are not only committing "grammatical nonsense" but undermining the feminist cause. By creating the neologism "la ministre" they are segregating themselves linguistically within the government. If that is what they want, it will lead to other "ridiculous" developments such as "la premiere ministre" and "demagogic" developments, current in Quebec and Belgium, the Academy notes - such as "une ecrivaine" for writer, or "une sapeuse-pompiere" for a female fire-fighter. The education minister, Segolene Royal, retorted yesterday that the Academicians should accept that "nothing in society is fixed". Certain words should be either feminine or masculine, according to the gender of the person involved.

"When the academicians say masculine is a universal gender, I say to them gently but firmly `no'. Diversity is universal," said Ms Royal. "It may seem a daft debate ... But it betrays the kind of conservatism which prevents societies from moving forward."