Campaigners for French regional language rights have called on UNESCO to grant them “cultural asylum” and accused the French state of systematic linguistic discrimination amid growing concern for the future of languages such as Breton and Occitan.
Protesters gathered outside the UN cultural organisation’s Paris headquarters on Wednesday carrying banners that said: “French state killing our languages.”
They included representatives from an alliance of groups also representing Basque, Catalan, Alsatian and Corsican speakers as well as the indigenous languages of France’s overseas territories.
Alexis Quentin, the secretary general of EBLUL/ELEN France, a Europe-wide network of language campaigners, said a delegation meeting UNESCO officials had been “well received”.
“They insisted that they need UNESCO to acknowledge that French regional languages are in a poor situation because France does not respect international conventions and treaties,” Quentin told Al Jazeera. “We want UNESCO to officially ask the government to pay attention to the protests in this country.”
Jean Francois Laffont, an Occitan language campaigner and the head of the delegation, told reporters it was an “historic day for the languages of France”.
A spokesperson for UNESCO told Al Jazeera the delegation had delivered a petition, but said it was not the organisation’s role to comment on the matter.
France is a signatory to several UNESCO treaties protecting diversity of languages, including the 2001 Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity, which calls on members to safeguard linguistic heritage and promote multi-lingualism.
Yet it is among only a handful of European nations that has not ratified the European Charter for Regional and Minority Languages, which is considered the main legislation promoting the rights of lesser-used language speakers across the continent and a current prerequisite of European Union membership.
Davyth Hicks, head of the Brussels-based Eurolang language advocacy group, pointed out that if France was an aspirant EU state its application would be rejected because of its lack of basic protection for languages.
“The fact that language activists have had to resort to such a desperate measure as calling for cultural asylum for their languages at UNESCO only reflects the pitiful state of national and linguistic minority rights in the French state,” he told Al Jazeera. “Since the French Revolution, which was meant to uphold equality, it has worked hard at what can only be described as a cultural genocide, removing and now eradicating regional languages from public life.”
Wednesday’s protest was timed to coincide with the the first anniversary of French President Francois Hollande’s inauguration in order to highlight his failure to make good on a campaign promise to ratify the regional languages charter.
Measures for that purpose were absent from a package of proposed constitutional reforms put forward by Jean-Marc Ayrault, the French prime minister, in March.
In a statement, Colette Capdevielle, a member of the National Assembly for Hollande’s Socialist Party in the Basque region of southern France, said the policy had been dropped because of the negative opinion of the Council of State, the country’s highest judicial body, which ruled in 1999 that ratification of the charter would “violate the constitutional principles of the indivisibility of the Republic”.
The status of French as the country’s only official language is enshrined in article two of the French constitution which states: “The language of the Republic shall be French.”
But Quentin said the Council of State was not a democratic body and that there was growing popular support for regional language rights, even if that required amendments to the constitution.
“Hollande made a promise, so we are very disappointed,” he said. “And we know, from Paris, from the country, from the towns, from the villages, people are upset. Even a majority of deputies [in the National Assembly] are upset.
“The majority of civil society is for that evolution for respecting regional languages, and a majority could be found, within the government and the opposition, even for changing the constitution.”
Campaigners say there are approximately five million people in France who are fluent in one of the country’s regional languages.
The use of languages other than French was once banned outright and speakers say they still face discrimination in public life, with no provision made by the state for public education and regional language media, which are considered vital safeguards for languages to flourish.
“Regional languages in France are completely expelled from the institutions, from schools, from the media, from the constitution, from the law, and nothing is legal,” said Quentin.
UNESCO’S atlas of endangered languages lists 26 under threat in France, including Breton, once the world’s most widely used Celtic language with about one million speakers just one century ago, and Occitan, a group of related dialects that were once the predominant language across southern France.
But the situation is probably worse than UNESCO’s figures suggest. Its most recent edition of the atlas, dating from 2010, estimated the number of Breton speakers at about 250,000, but many of those are elderly and the language faces a sharp demographic decline over the next decade.
Tangi Louarn, a campaigner from the northwest region of Brittany, told Al Jazeera that Breton was in danger of dying as a social language because speakers were discouraged from using it and many young people saw little benefit in learning a language with no official status.
“It’s getting worse all the time,” he said. “Whenever we try to do something to use Breton in daily life we face a lot of obstacles. Every day you are discriminated against as a Breton speaker, so it is very difficult to go on.”
Since coming to power, Hollande’s government has reiterated its recognition of the need for fresh measures to protect and promote France’s regional languages.
Vincent Peillon, the education minister, said on Monday that the government remained in favour of ratifying the European charter, but acknowledged that it faced legal difficulties.
Meanwhile, Aurelie Filippetti, the French culture minister, established an advisory committee on languages in March, and said that ratification of the charter was only one measure among many needed to encourage linguistic pluralism.
“We need to break once and for all with the idea that learning a language involves unlearning another,” said Filippetti. “And reconnect with the idea that it is a plurality of languages, alongside French, that can give our country its true face, a nation open to the world, confident in its rich heritage, making its history key in adapting to the challenges of the future.”
But Quentin dismissed the committee as a distraction, pointing to the fact that crucial legislation on education policy currently under scrutiny in the French parliament did not include adequate measures to promote regional languages.
“A committee has no power. A committee is just for the show, and nothing concrete,” he said. “It was created by the culture ministry to consider new legislation. But a very important piece of legislation regarding education is about to be voted on, so it is already too late.”
This article was originally published on Al Jazeera on 17 May, 2013.