Opinion: In the French language, ‘inclusive’ becomes a loaded word

Editor’s Note: David A. Andelman, a contributor to CNN, twice winner of the Deadline Club Award, is a chevalier of the French Legion of Honor, author of “A Red Line in the Sand: Diplomacy, Strategy, and the History of Wars That Might Still Happen” and blogs at SubStack’s Andelman Unleashed. He formerly was a foreign correspondent and bureau chief for The New York Times in Europe and ASIA and for CBS News in Paris. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion at CNN.

Since 1986, the 40 “immortals” of the French Academy, the ultimate guarantors of the purity of the language, have been working on the ninth edition of the French dictionary, going laboriously from letter to letter.

David A. Andelman - David Andelman
David A. Andelman - David Andelman

Earlier this year, they disclosed their latest tranche — from “sommation to spermatophytes.” They began work on the S’s in December 2017 — after working on the R’s since November 2012.

While working on the latest installment however, the Academy did note that a few words like “sous-maitre, sous-maitresse” (deputy master, deputy mistress), have muscled their way into the vernacular, and hence the official dictionary.

No longer, if Senator Pascale Gruny has anything to say about it. She has just taken a first step toward a proposed law making everything, or really anyone — at least in official documents — well, masculine.

She calls it ridding the world, or at least one corner of it, of inclusiveness. “In the name of safeguarding the French language, and to preserve clarity and intelligibility,” her memo accompanying its introduction concludes, “an intervention by the legislature is necessary.”

In other words, if France were ever to elect a female president, she would still be Le Président (rather than La Présidente).

Banned under this measure would be the addition of feminine endings to any nouns that would make them applicable to both sexes, rather than simply using the masculine to represent everyone.

Last month, the French Senate voted 221 to 82 in favor of the proposal banning gender-inclusive language from official French documents. It will now go to MPs to vote on it becoming law, though no date has been set.

It seems that Gruny, one of the senators who tabled the bill, at least persuaded the Senate that such critical issues as inclusiveness in language should no longer be left to a crotchety group of old men and the occasional woman occupying lifelong sinecures under the cupola of the French Academy.

Since it produced the first dictionary back in 1694 — a mere 59 years after first beginning its work — it’s taken decades, at times even a century, for the Academicians to enshrine revisions of the language into print. (Incidentally, they’re still touching up the eighth edition from the 1930s.)

Now it seems, another legitimate arm of state power — the French Senate — has taken matters into its own hands.

It raises a central question: Isn’t this measure a legislative wedge that could become a movement to rid the nation of the tyranny of a French Academy? (The group, incidentally, meets just once a week on Thursday mornings to modernize a language that probably really does need a bit of streamlining.)

It was a question I posed to Gruny in an interview this week. Horrified, she threw up her hands: Not at all! She pointed to the simple fact that, enshrined in Article 2 of the French Constitution, is the immutable reality that “the language of the Republic is French.”

There’s just some tinkering going on.

Gruny told me in her offices in the Senate overlooking a corner of the Jardins de Luxembourg, “I find today that like equality between men and women, it was a struggle for years, we have made progress on the subject.”

Indeed, when I entered her offices and extended my hand, saying “Senatrice Gruny?” she smiled and wagged her finger. “No, no, no — Senator.”

Unsurprisingly, in this deeply divided French government and nation, a lot of this has now descended into politics, which will still make the bill a landmine when it makes its way to its next hurdle — passage in the National Assembly.

The left doesn’t like this idea of removing feminisms. As Jean-Luc Mélenchon, leader of the left-wing populist France Insoumise (France Unbowed) party said on X: “The French language belongs to those who speak it.”

But the right embraces it. Even French President Emmanuel Macron, the epitome of centrism, suggested that the proposed bill might not be such a bad idea. And he is someone who has embraced all efforts to cement French as a central language for the world.

Indeed, last month, the Macron government filed two complaints with the European Union’s top court, charging that European bureaucrats are all too often hired on the basis of tests given only in English — a case of blatant discrimination.

It’s all part of the French president’s ongoing campaign to boost the use of French everywhere. Around the same time Gruny’s bill passed the Senate, Macron inaugurated the Cité International de la Langue Française (The International City of the French language) in the Chateau de Villers-Cotterêts, built in 1532 by King François I after he returned from imprisonment in Spain.

As Macron put it in his inauguration of the Cité, “We must allow this [French] language to live, but also keep its foundations, the bases of its grammar, the strength of its syntax, and not give in to the air of the times. In this language, the masculine is the neutral.”

All utterly ironic in a language where every noun is either masculine or feminine — a true landmine for anyone trying to learn this language without having grown up with it. So, a newspaper is un journal (masculine), but television is la télévision (feminine).

Frankly, as someone who has spoken and read French my entire adult life (and continues to struggle with its often-bizarre masculinity or femininity), I’d love to rid French of all its inclusiveness. I won’t hold my breath.

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