France: The Case of the Forbidden Letter

In France, we have a Far West too. That’s where Astérix comes from: Brittany. But today’s story is real. The new Astérix hails from Quimper and was 5 months old at the time of writing. Of course he has no idea about what is going on yet. He is called Fañch, the Breton equivalent of the French François.

Because of his name, an absurd administrative dispute has been going on since his birth. It inflamed Brittany and didn’t do any good to improve the already-stormy relationship between Paris and the French region(s). In fact, Fañch’s parents are the last in a series of people from Brittany, the Basque Country and Northern Catalonia to suffer from an administrative decision that isn’t even a law. The three regions possess something that France doesn’t want to hear about: the ñ.

One after the other the powers-that-be, in ascending order of power-that-really-is, contradicted the previous decision regarding the spelling of the name:

  • Fañch’s parents, who want the original Breton spelling
  • the officer at the registration office, who refuses the ñ
  • the mayor’s office, that accepts it
  • the tribunal, referred to by the prosecutor of the Republic, that refuses again. Twice : on July 5th, then on September 13th.

As usual in France, simple things can be complicated. An as usual in France, linguistic oppression hides behind equality and national unity. Allow me a quick explanation: since 1993, French parents can give their baby the name of their choice, but in order to prevent any whimsical exaggeration the prosecutor of the Republic can require a tribunal to rule on a naming, especially if the name could be detrimental to the child. This way, some fortunate people managed not to be named Nutella by their parents.

But there is another big “but”: a circular from the Ministry of Justice from 2014 gives a list of all the admissible diacritics that a French name can possess. The é, è, ë etc can be found in this list, but not the ñ. The list is based on the “Roman alphabet” (sic, since it really is the Latin alphabet, but who am I to judge), so it looks like the ñ doesn’t come from Rome. Maybe so, but after all, like all diacritics, it has a phonetic meaning. It is a standard school joke to pronounce the name François without its ç.

Has this circular not made the life of new parents a legal nightmare, it would only be a joke, and a bad one at that. Because really, for a country that boasts on its reputation of being logical, this is a perfect example of Kafkaesque stupidity [note: we say “cartésien” rather than “logical”, because a) the whole concept comes from the French hilosopher René Descartes and b) it’s a much classier word than “logical”].

If you can read French I cannot recommend enough this excellent post by Philippe Blanchet, professor in sociolinguistics at the University of Rennes 2 (in Brittany’s capital). He gives a very detailed picture of the historical context and explains the legal case, or rather, the absence of a good legal basis. It only proves the same point about this dispute: that each time someone is actually knowledgeable in linguistic issues, they find the Fañch ruling idiotic and barely legit.

If you cannot read French and/or you are not French then you may not understand a few key concepts about us and our relationship to our language. I promise I really tried not to write this with so much sarcasm. In the end I couldn’t.

  • We fight a constant battle against discrimination. Just have a look at the infographics on this official website. That the Fañch case is a textbook example of discriminating against several of the criteria listed in the law (origin, political opinions, ability to express oneself in another language than French…) is apparently irrelevant to the authorities.
  • We love French. But even our Académie Française, a one-of-a-kind assembly of people whose roles are to decide how to write and speak French properly, agrees that the letter ñ is part of historical French.
  • Corollary: we fight against foreign languages, because French must survive (or even better, prevail). Sure, but even the Constitution of the Fifth Republic acknowledges that Breton is a language of France. So, not a foreign language, as nicely summarised by the Breton language advocate Fañch Broudic.
  • We know our history. The ordinance of Villers-Cotterêts from 1539 ruled that French would be the preferred language for all official matters. It doesn’t seem to matter that the text itself was full of ~, or that the notion of French language was not even well defined in the 16th century.
  • We hate ridicule. We even made a movie about it.

All in all, this whole Fañch story is based on a document that isn’t even as strong as a law and contradicts so many French, European and UN texts that it should not even exist. How fragile our national unity must be to be threatened by a minuscule stroke of a pen.

So where are we now, and where are Fañch’s parents? Not much further than in May. Twenty-one deputies wrote a letter to the Minister of Justice asking to revise the 2014 circular and add the ~ to the list of admissible characters. While this is obviously not a technical difficulty, this doesn’t solve the real problem: the counter-productive discrimination against France’s linguistic minorities, partly because my beautiful, complex, self-contradicting country doesn’t recognise the existence of minorities on its soil. Yes, it is very possible to be Breton and French, Basque and French, etc. Unfortunately, each time a choice is to be made, France (Paris) chooses the path towards forced uniformisation rather than equality.

Photo by Daiga Ellaby on Unsplash

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