Mother tongue divides France

LIONEL JOSPIN, the Prime Minister, disagrees with Jacques Chirac, the President, who also disagrees with himself, as only he can.

Mr Jospin simultaneously disagrees with his long-time friend, the Interior Minister, Jean-Pierre Chevenement, who is admittedly a rather disagreeable man. The Communists and Greens agree with the right-wing liberals but disagree with the populist wing of the Socialists who agree with the far- right National Front.

France has been plunged into a Babel-like row - constitutional, political and personal - which crosses all the traditional left-right divisions. The subject is language. Should France give formal recognition for the first time to its rich heritage of regional and minority languages? Should the state officially foster Alsatian, Basque, Breton, Catalan, Corsican, Languedoc, Provencal and even Creole, several varieties of which are spoken by two million people in French overseas territories and departements?

Opponents - on both right and left - say such a development would unravel more than 200 years of single-minded determination by the French state to make the republic homogeneous and indivisible. It would be a first step towards making France into a loosely connected collection of provinces, like Tony Blair's United Kingdom, or, worse still, Belgium. Mr Chevenement said it would Balkanise France.

Supporters of the idea - on both left and right - say it would be a long- overdue step towards more inclusive French state, capable of cherishing its ethnic and linguistic heritage. In any case, it would commit France to doing little more than it is already doing: in Brittany, you can learn Breton at school; in Provence, the road signs are in both French and Provencal.

The dispute is significant - and bad-tempered - because it is happening on the only truly active fault-line in French politics. On one side, there are the sovereigntists, republican purists, who fear that the centralising French state, and France itself, is menaced by the European Union, by globalism, by American hegemony and now (from within) by people who stubbornly insist on speaking something other than French.

They include Mr Chevenement's Citizen's Movement, an anti-European, anti- American Socialist sect. This populist party has little popular support but forms a key component in the Jospin coalition.

The sovereigntists also include a breakaway party of dissident Gaullists and other Eurosceptic right-wingers, launched successfully at the European elections last month by the former Gaullist interior minister, Charles Pasqua.

On the other side are Mr Jospin's Socialists, the Greens and most of the rest of the centre-right. But where sits President Chirac? Uncomfortably, and absurdly, on the fence. The Gaullist President started the whole process rolling by promising Breton politicians in 1996 that France would sign the European Charter of Regional and Minority Languages, adopted in 1992 by the Council of Europe. The idea was pursued by Mr Chirac's own Gaullist prime minister, Alain Juppe, and then by his successor, Mr Jospin.

Last month, France, with Mr Chirac's blessing, signed up to 39 of the 94 articles of the charter. Paris committed itself to allowing the teaching of regional languages at school and university, encouraging their cultural development and the translation of official texts and documents. It was made clear that French would remain the official and dominant language of the republic, from Calais to the Pacific Ocean.

Two weeks ago France's constitutional council ruled that even this limited charter breached the first two articles of the French constitution, those stating that the the French people is "indivisible" and that the "language of the republic is French". Mr Jospin proposed a minor constitutional amendment to allow the charter to be ratified; Mr Chirac refused.

In the intervening period, the breakaway, sovereigntist Gaullist party defeated his own party in the European elections. Mr Chirac, untroubled by consistency as ever decided to play a nationalist and republican card. However, the battle goes on. Both centre-right and Socialist deputies intend to launch pro-regional language, constitutional amendments in the national assembly.

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