The OPLC will provide service to Northern Catalonia, which lies in the south of France, immediately north to Spain’s autonomous community of Catalonia. Whereas Catalan enjoys co-official status in Catalonia alongside Spanish and Occitan, it does not in Northern Catalonia, where French remains the sole official language.
The OPLC’s goal is to foster the transmission and socialization of the language and to boost Catalan culture in France’s Northern Catalonia, in a similar way than other linguistic communities do (comparable public offices exist for Occitan, Basque, Breton, and Alsatian German). The OPLC will bring together representatives from the French central administration, Occitania, Pyrénées-Orientales, Northern Catalan municipalities, as well as the University of Perpinyà —where the Office will be based in— and pro-Catalan language civil society associations.
The Office was announced in September 2016. Although it should have started its work in 2017, it has not been until late March 2019 that the French central authorities have given green light to contribute 100,000 euros to it, out of a total budget of 450,000.
“This is very important news,” Alà Baylac-Ferrer says, “as for years APLEC and many other associations have been asking for the establishment of a body like this one. We are quite satisfied. However, it should be noted that, even if this has been announced to the media, we have no direct information on which are, at this moment, the specific proposals of the new body. For instance: when will it be effectively established, which policies will be decided in it, which the budgets to be contributed by each individual administration will be?”.
“The OPLC’s main value,” Baylac-Ferrer goes on, “is that it will bring together all the [public] administrations with the goal of developing the language and discussing and devising what should be done as regards the Catalan linguistic policy. To APLEC, one of the key points of the OPLC’s future work is in the field of education, and we are demanding this irrespectively if the Office is finally born or not: resources must be set up in order to further develop Catalan language teaching.”
More Catalan in schools
According to Baylac-Ferrer, this development should have a twofold approach. On the one hand, the subject of Catalan language should be introduced for all Northern Catalan students. On the other, the offer of bilingual public education —that is, classes combining Catalan and French as vehicular language on a parity basis— should be expanded.
“We are not asking for anything that can not be assumed by the State, nor are these extraordinary goals,” says Baylac-Ferrer. As regards the first approach —the subject of Catalan language—, “this already exists within the institutional framework of Corsica, where all students at all levels learn Corsican.” As regards the second —bilingual education—, “at present, in primary education, 8.5% of students partially or wholly study through the medium of Catalan, if we consider bilingual public classes, La Bressola private immersive schools, and immersive experimental Arrels classes. In contrast, in the Basque-speaking area of the department of Pyrénées-Atlantiques, 40% of primary school children are studying through the medium of Basque.”
APLEC president believes that the extension of the offer of public education in Catalan would be in accordance with the social demand for it that, according to him, exists: “If we confront the figures with those contained in the Survey of Linguistic Uses, 76% [of the Northern Catalan population] say they support bilingual education, and other surveys show that such a support always stands at between 50% and 80%.”
“We are thus very far away from where we should be,” says Baylac-Ferrer, “although it is true that, seen from a historical perspective, there have never been so many bilingual students, and so many students learning the subject of Catalan.” However, “restraints exist” that do not allow this progression to be faster, “either because of carelessness on the part of the Ministry of Education or because the language is being voluntarily marginalized by allocating less hours of teaching or less teachers to it”, such as in Ceret’s collège —where education authorities decided to remove one hour of Catalan teaching in two classes in February— or more generally the threats to bilingual education entailed by the Blanquer Law, which in Occitania has taken thousands to the streets to protest the upcoming suppression of Occitan language teaching in secondary education.
Central government holds the key
Much of the possibilities to make progress depend on the Ministry of Education of the French government. “In France, no self-governing regions exist,” recalls Baylac-Ferrer. While it is true that “the [Occitania] region, the department [of Pyrénées-Orientales] and the municipalities exert relative pressure” on the central government, “at the end of the day it is the State that has all the powers.” “Still,” he continues, “if we look at what has happened with Basque learning, it has been possible to develop it thanks to its Public Office,” which was established in 2004.
The Public Office of the Basque Language has an annual budget that currently exceeds 4 million. It covers a territory —the Northern Basque Country, or Iparralde— with a population of 300,000, less than Northern Catalonia’s 470,000. “The experience of the Public Office of the Basque Language shows that linguistic policies have a real impact in the field of education. And that’s what we want to have in here too: important, viable, and efficient results.”
In connection to this, it is striking that besides unlocking its 100,000 euro contribution for the OPLC, the French central government has decided that the ministries of Education and Culture will not be sitting at the Office, but the prefecture —belonging to the ministry of the Interior— will, as Malherbe has explained. “I do not really know if this will be quite useful,” Baylac-Ferrer thinks about, “but in any case, depending on this change, an amendment of the statutes of the OPLC is now needed.” If all the forecasts are met “and no more hindrances are set by anyone”, Baylac-Ferrer thinks that by the end of 2019 the Catalan Public Office could begin to work: “The headquarters are already waiting at the University.”