France passes “historic” law to allow minoritised language immersion in public schools

Better funding for immersive community-run schools expected

Moment that the bill is passed by the Assembly.
Moment that the bill is passed by the Assembly. Author: Twitter @LCP account screenshot.
The French National Assembly has passed a bill that opens the door to implement language immersion through the medium of minoritised languages in public schools, as well as to allow for better funding of immersive, community-run private schools. The approval has been described as “historic” by several organisations working in favour of those languages, such as Breton, Catalan, Occitan, Basque or Corsican.

The Bill for the protection and promotion of regional languages received the support of 247 MPs, with 76 votes against and 19 abstentions. It had been introduced by Paul Molac, a longstanding campaigner for the Breton language and culture who has been a member of the National Assembly since 2012. In October 2018, Molac formed the Liberty and Territories (LT) group in the lower house of the French Parliament. It is made up of 18 MPs, including several Breton, Corsican, Alsatian and Occitan MPs.

At the end of the parliamentary sitting, Molac and other Breton representatives have sung Brittany’s national anthem, Bro Gozh.

“This is a collective victory,” Molac has reacted to the bill’s approval, “with support from all the parliamentary groups. Grassroots organisations have mobilised a lot, and thus this victory is also theirs.”

What are the main points of the bill?

During the debate on the bill, three main aspects have been highlighted.

The first one is the fact that the law will allow public schools to use the pedagogy of language immersion. In other words, they will be able to offer the majority of subjects in one of the traditional minoritised languages —Breton, Catalan, Occitan, Basque, Basque, Corsican.... Until now, the maximum that a public school could offer was an even split of 50% in French and minoritised language. Full immersion could be solely used by private, community-run schools, such as Diwan in Brittany, Bressola in North Catalonia, or Calandreta in Occitania, among others.

The second one is that these community-run schools will be able to receive funding from the municipalities where their pupils live, even if those pupils do not live in the municipality where the school is physically located. Until now, this possibility only existed for public schools.

The third one is that the law authorises the use of “diacritical marks of regional languages” in civil status acts. For example, it will be possible for parents to officially register a baby with a name that incorporates a diacritic, even if it is not present in the French language. In 2017, a court banned the registration of a child with the Breton name “Fañch” because the letter “ñ” was not admissible. Although the child was finally able to be registered with that name, the case highlighted the lack of protection for parents when it came to naming their babies. After the law is enacted, another Fañch case should not be repeated.

A journey of more than a year

The bill had been passed at first reading by the National Assembly in February 2020, but in downgraded version from Molac’s initial proposal. The Senate, in a vote in December 2020, restored the parts that had been cut in the Assembly.

After the Senate’s approval, it was required that the Assembly approve the bill again at second reading, which is what has been done now. The text is the same as the one voted by the Senate, so the upper chamber will not need to vote on it again.

In any case, the Constitutional Council could still review the constitutionality of the law before it is enacted. Some MPs belonging to the government majority argue that immersion in public schools should not have been approved because it goes against Article 2 of the Constitution, which recognises French as “the language of the Republic.”

Molac counters that the bill does not force schools to offer immersive programs, nor requires any pupil to follow them. Thus, according to the Breton MP, it cannot be argued that the new regulation goes against Article 2.