Warning that the well-being of France and its future are at stake, the government has banned the use in schools of a method increasingly used by some Francophones to make the language more inclusive by feminizing certain words.
More specifically, the decree of the Minister of Education targets what is arguably the most contested and politicized letter in the French language – “e”. Simply put, “e” is the feminine letter of the language, used in feminine nouns and their adjectives and, sometimes, when conjugating verbs.
But proponents of women’s rights are also increasingly adding “e” to words that normally would not have included this letter, in a conscious – and divisive – effort to make women more visible.
Take the generic French word for leaders – “leaders” – for example. For some, this masculine spelling suggests that they are usually men and makes female leaders invisible because there is a missing feminine “e” near the end. For proponents of inclusive writing, a more gender-egalitarian spelling is ‘leaders’, inserting the additional ‘e’, preceded by a midpoint, to make it clear that leaders can be of both sexes. .
Likewise, they could write “elected officials” – instead of the generic masculine “elected” – for elected office holders, again to emphasize that women are also elected. Or they could use “idiots”, instead of the usual generic “idiots”, to recognize that stupidity is not the exclusive preserve of men.
Supporters and opponents sometimes divide political lines. The conservative party of French republicans uses “elected”; the left France Unbowed tends towards the “elected”.
“It’s a fight to make women visible in the language,” said Laurence Rossignol, a socialist senator who uses the feminizing supplement “· e”.
Speaking in a phone interview, she said her opponents “are the same activists who were against same-sex marriage, assisted reproduction and longer abortion windows. … This is the new banner under which the reactionaries gather. “
But for the government of centrist President Emmanuel Macron, the use of the “e” threatens the very fabric of France. Speaking in a Senate debate on Thursday, a deputy education minister said inclusive writing “is a danger to our country” and “will spell the end of the use of French around the world” .
By calling into question the traditional norms of the use of French, inclusive writing makes the language more difficult to learn, penalizing students with learning difficulties, argued the Minister, Nathalie Elimas.
“It breaks up the words, splits them in half,” she said. “With the spread of inclusive writing, the English language – already almost hegemonic across the world – would certainly and perhaps forever conquer the French language. “
The circular from the French Ministry of Education which banned the formula “e” from schools, however, accepted other more inclusive language changes to highlight women.
They systematically include female job titles for women – such as “president”, instead of “president”, or “ambassador” rather than “ambassador” for ambassadors. He also encouraged the simultaneous use of male and female forms to emphasize that roles are filled by both sexes. So a job offer in a school, for example, should state that it will go to “the candidate” – male or female – who is most qualified to fill it.
Raphael Haddad, author of a French guide to inclusive writing, said the section of the ministry circular represented progress for the cause of women in French.
“This is a huge step forward, disguised as a ban,” he said. “What happens to the French language is the same thing that happened in the United States, with ‘president’ replaced by ‘president’ [and] ‘fireman’ by ‘fireman.’ “
Information for this article was provided by Aritz Parra, Frank Jordans and Nicole Winfield of The Associated Press.