In the preface to Pygmalion, George Bernard Shaw wrote: “It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making another Englishman hate or despise him.” As of last week, any French citizen who follows suit risks a prison sentence and a hefty fine. While the French electorate (like the rest of us) endures restrictions of liberty unheard of in peacetime, the French parliament has been busy debating accents. Last week, it passed a law making “glottophobie” a crime, giving discrimination because of accent equal status with race, gender or disability.
The French Prime Minister, Jean Castex, is among those who have been ridiculed for not talking proper. Taking over this summer from the former prime minister, Edouard Philippe, who speaks with the urbane Parisian voice of the French ruling classes, M. Castex delivered his acceptance speech in a south-western accent that provoked a flurry of social media comment about his “earthy” style and “rugged” tones – reminiscent, a Paris‑Match journalist observed, of a rugby commentator.
For a nation devoted to celebrating its vibrant regional variations of landscape, custom and cuisine, France is surprisingly intolerant of linguistic difference. Long after the BBC relinquished the idea of Received Pronunciation as the broadcasting standard, the intonations of Parisian French remain the default cadence of Gallic authority.
But perhaps not for much longer. The snobbish response to Castex’s accent provoked a nationwide reaction: video footage resurfaced of an ugly incident from 2018, when the far-Left politician, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, insulted a woman journalist with a Toulouse accent. Linguistics experts emerged from the archives to anticipate the joyful day when the Comédie Française would “cast someone with a Corsican accent in a play by Molière”.
But it was an MP with an accent as dense as garbure, the robust soup-stew of his native Pyrénées-Atlantiques, who most vigorously opposed the idea of legislating about language. Jean Lassalle is a colourful presence in the Assemblée Nationale. In 2003 he interrupted the then minister of the interior, Nicolas Sarkozy, with a lively rendition of the Occitan anthem, Se Canta. In 2015 he entertained his fellow MPs with a bravura account of his failures to pass the “psychotechnique” elements of the French driving test (a YouTube video shows the future president, Emmanuel Macron, shaking with laughter). Last week, he tweeted: “I don’t want a law that protects us against small-minded people.”
It remains to be seen how the new legislation will work in practice. Will les flics find themselves arresting comedians – or elderly uncles – who make off-colour jokes about accents? It is a point worth considering here, where the Law Commission’s recent report on hate crime suggested extending the scope of criminal legislation to remarks made in private homes.
Mathieu Avanzi, a linguistics expert at the Sorbonne, suggests that social change is already well ahead of legislation: noting that French marketing companies have begun to use dialect terms in their advertisements, he observes that “regionalism sells”. Or, as Jean Lassalle puts it, big laws may not be the most effective protection against small minds.