Breton language flourishes in new TV channel

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Tune in to the WestEnders of Europe. The first Breton television station, and the first regional interest TV station of any kind in France, goes on air tomorrow evening.

Tune in to the WestEnders of Europe. The first Breton television station, and the first regional interest TV station of any kind in France, goes on air tomorrow evening.

TV Breizh, which will broadcast throughout France in simultaneous Breton and French-language versions, is no amateurish community station with radical views and low production values. It is backed by some of the biggest names in media, including Rupert Murdoch, Silvio Berlusconi and the most recognised face on French television, the newsreader Patrick Poivre d'Arvor.

The station promises up to six hours of new Bretonlanguage programming each day, as well as Celtic-interest films such as Braveheart and (less obviously) James Bond, dubbed into Breton.

The intention is to make money, but also to satisfy the growing demand of the 4.2 million Bretons (8 million in France as a whole) for institutions that recognise their linguistic and cultural identity.

Patrick Le Lay, the founding father of TV Breizh, said: "If we satisfy this legitimate aspiration before it becomes a hardline demand, we will be contributing to the moderation of the debate." Mr Le Lay, born in Brittany and better known as a businessman than a regional sentimentalist, heads TF1, the most popular French channel. His personal contacts brought in Mr Murdoch's News International (13 per cent of the £10m capital), Mr Berlusconi (13 per cent) and another Breton-born tycoon, the famously unsentimental Francois Pinault (27 per cent). Mr Pinault is proprietor of, among many things, Gucci and Christie's auction house.

TV Breizh, broadcasting 17 hours a day from a converted naval canteen on the harbour-front at Lorient in southern Brittany, arrives at a critical moment in the regional and linguistic debate in France.

The proposals from Lionel Jospin, the Prime Minister, for limited autonomy for Corsica - including the teaching of the Corsican language in state schools - have led to matching demands from other regions, especially Brittany.

Bretons say their language, which has affinities with Welsh and Cornish, is older than French and has been deliberately suppressed by the state since the First World War, and is spoken by less than 10 per cent of the Breton population.

There is now a vogue for relearning the language among educated Bretons and a resurgence of interest in Breton music. The station aims to separate this interest in what Mr Le Lay calls "Celtitude" from the extreme demands of fringe groups such as the Breton Liberation Army, which killed a woman when it set a bomb outside a McDonald's restaurant near Rennes in April.

Ideologues of French republican centralism - such as the former interior minister Jean-Pierre Chevÿnement, who resigned this week - take the view that any manifestation of regional identity or minority languages is a threat to the French state. But there is now a growing alternative establishment view that it would be sensible to adopt a more flexible definition of "France".

The Breton station's backers have other motives, including in Mr Murdoch's case gaining a toe-hold in the fiercely protected French TV market. They also hope that, with a modest budget of £8m a year and only 50 employees, TV Breizh will prove a commercial success.

It will be available to satellite dish owners throughout France and, on cable, to the 2.7 million homes in the five Breton départements and to viewers in Paris.

The 4.2 million population of Brittany proper - including Loire-Atlantique, historically Breton but severed from the region by the French state - is larger than that of Ireland or Wales and not far behind Scotland. Mr Le Lay hopes TV Breizh will become part of a Celtic network, swapping and commissioning programmes with RTE of Ireland and BBC Scotland and Wales.

"Our ambition is Europe-wide, to work for the development of Celtic culture, the inherited wealth of the populations of [the] extreme west of Europe," said Mr Le Lay.