The Académie Française Threatens to Sue the French Government Over “Unconstitutional” Use of English Words

French Language Purity

The Académie française, the four hundred year old body tasked with preserving the linguistic purity of the French language, has threatened to take the unprecedented step of suing the government if it does not remove English words such as “surname” from France’s new biometric identity cards. The Académie argues that France is under an unconstitutional and excessive English-language “invasion.”

The Académie was founded in 1635 by Cardinal Richelieu, the chief minister to King Louis XIII, and since its establishment, has never taken such a measure.

At the root of the dispute is a conflict surrounding the interpretation of the European regulation of 20 June 2019, which mandated the issuance of biometric identity cards whose document title should also be given in at least one other official language of the European Union. There is no obligation to translate anything other than “identity card.” The regulation does, however, allow for all “well-established designation” to also be translated.

When the card, which has a microchip and QR code, was introduced in August 2021, the French authorities decided to take the maximalist interpretation of the regulation and translate every category of the card. So, it is filled with English words such as “name,” “given name,” “nationality,” “date of birth,” “place of birth,” and so on.

Toubon Law

According to the Académie, this violates the 1994 “Toubon law,” under which French must be used for all administrative documents, and Article 2 of the Constitution, which says that “French is the language of the republic.”

The Académie has asked Prime Minister Jean Castex to intervene within the next two months, failure to which it will take the matter up with France’s Conseil d’ … tat. The Conseil acts as both the government’s legal adviser and the country’s supreme court for administrative justice.

french academie francaise. screenshot.
Academie Francaise. screenshot.

In an interview with Le Figaro, Hélène Carrère d’Encausse, the Académie’s perpetual secretary, said that the reason for the change of approach is because the body’s members, known as “immortals” because of their lifetime membership, felt that simply issuing a declaration or statement would have no impact in an age where everyone’s views count equally.

The Académie feels that the government’s moves have been undertaken “surreptitiously” and are illegal and that without legal action, no change will be forthcoming. They feel that the European regulation calling for a translation of the phrase, “carte nationale d’identité” into “identity card,” has been over-zealously interpreted.

France has always been very touchy about the linguistic purity of French, something which students of the language looking for conversational French tutors who fit the profile have to keep in mind.

Macron Franglais

President Emmanuel Macron has himself come under criticism for his use of franglais, using English phrases such as, “bottom up.” The president’s entourage refers to him as “le boss,” while he is fond of calling France “une start-up nation” and singing the praises of “le brainstorming,” and “le co-working.”

Macron has argued that France should be an open language and that French and English can co-exist as world languages. He has worked to promote the use of French across the world and is under pressure to push for greater use of French during his six-month presidency of the European Union.