France leads teaching of minoritised languages to even greater uncertainty

Tens of thousands protest top authority decision that regards language immersion in public schools unconstitutional · Immersive community-run schools fear for their future

Demonstration in Baiona (Basque Country), 29 May 2021.
Demonstration in Baiona (Basque Country), 29 May 2021. Author: Euskaltzaleen Topagunea
What was supposed to be a “historic law” for France’s minoritised languages has given way to a threat over their present and future. Tens of thousands marched 29 May in towns of several stateless nations in France calling for respect for language immersion in minoritised languages, as this pedagogic approach has now an uncertain future after the declaration of unconstitutionality of two articles of the so-called Molac Law.

Perpinyà, Albi, Carcassona, Bastia, Baiona, Lille or Guingamp have been some of the towns where people have protested, the demonstrations called by Pour Que Vivent Nos Langues, an alliance bringing together most of community-run immersive schools such as La Bressola, Calandretas, Diwan, Seaska, or ABCM. Demonstrations in the Basque Country (Baiona) and Brittany (Guingamp) gathered most of the protesters, with some 10,000 each according to the organisers.

Basque Country’s Seaska school federation is clear that immersion is now “in danger” after the Constitutional Council decided that Article 4 of the Molac Law “ignores” Article 2 of the French Constitution, which states that “the language of the ·epublic is French.” “Therefore, [the article] is unconstitutional,” the decision of France’s top constitutional authority reads.

The Molac Law was approved by the French National Assembly on 8 April. It offered three major innovations: the possibility of using the immersive methodology in public schools, better funding for community-run immersive schools, and the authorisation for the use of diacritical marks that are typical of minoritised languages (such as the “ñ” of Breton) in civil status records.

On April 22, however, 60 MPs from the government majority filed an appeal against the Molac Law before the Constitutional Council, which on 21 May decided on the unconstitutionality of immersion and also of the use of diacritics.

In both cases, the Council raised a fundamental issue: French legislation does not recognise the right of individuals to use a language other than French in their relations with the administration or public services. According to the Council, the immersive pedagogy and diacritics would trespass that limit.

Changing the Constitution or trying to resist?

Faced with this logic, several voices are calling for the Constitution to be amended so that this incompatibility disappears. This is the stance of Pour Que Vivent Nos Langues, which considers that it would be futile to try to pass another law similar to the Molac Law, and thinks that Article 2 of the Constitution should be amended instead. Mayor of Occitan town Pau François Bayrou also deems the constitutional amendment a need.

In 2008, when “regional languages” were introduced in the Constitution, it was discussed that they could be mentioned in Article 1. Reactions from French nationalists and various official bodies were angry, and finally minoritised languages were relegated to Article 75.

Meanwhile, the possibilities opened up by the decision of the Constitutional Council are of concern to many organisations working for minoritised languages. Not only because immersion is now banned from being introduced in public schools, but because uncertainty has been generated regarding the future of community-run immersive schools. The French government’s Education minister, Jean-Michel Blanquer, is warning that the decision will “lead to some developments” in schools such as Breton-language Diwan.

In this regard, this network of Breton immersive schools has acknowledged that “from now on, we are in an unknown field at the legal, financial and operational levels.” It is uncertain to what extent the Council’s decision will also have an effect on community-run immersive schools.

Meanwhile, Seaska has pointed out that Blanquer has a “dream”, to completely eliminate the immersive model, also in community-run schools, and replace it with the “bilingual system, which does not create complete speakers, so that our languages disappear.” The Basque federation of schools believes that future negotiations with French authorities will be more complicated due to the Constitutional Council’s decision.

In a statement on 26 May, French President Emmanuel Macron said he had called on the French government and Parliament to “find the means to ensure the transmission” of linguistic diversity while respecting “widely recognised pedagogical frameworks since half a century ago.”