France Is Debating Whether French Is Sexist

Is the grammar of liberté, égalité, fraternité inherently chauvinistic?

French President Emmanuel Macron looks at a bust of writer Alexandre Dumas during a visit to the Monte Cristo castle near Paris, on Sep. 16. (Ludovic Marin/AFP/Getty Images)
French President Emmanuel Macron looks at a bust of writer Alexandre Dumas during a visit to the Monte Cristo castle near Paris, on Sep. 16. (Ludovic Marin/AFP/Getty Images)

In early September, French President Emmanuel Macron paid a visit to Villers-Cotterêts. An hour’s drive north of Paris, the village boasts as its main attraction the ancestral home of Alexandre Dumas père. But Macron had come not just to praise the author of The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers, who grew up in the village, but also to inadvertently bury a more obscure work composed there: the Ordinance of Villers-Cotterêts, signed into law by King Francis I in 1539.

Eager to portray himself as the defender of France’s linguistic patrimony, Macron launched into an impromptu history lesson to a group of schoolchildren visiting the Renaissance-era chateau where the ordinance was signed. “France was made through its language,” he observed, when “the king decided in this chateau that all of those living in his realm had to speak French.” Understandably, the children did not correct Macron: The edict simply made French, not Latin, the administrative language of the kingdom. As for the “French,” they continued to speak a dozen different languages and hundreds of patois for the next 300 years or so.

Macron’s misstep in Villers-Cotterêts reminds us that the French language is the third rail of French politics — a rail that has sparked the current brawl among academics, intellectuals, and politicians over what is known as “inclusive writing.” Last week, published a manifesto titled “We will no longer teach that the masculine prevails over the feminine.”

Signed by hundreds of academics, including the novelist Marie Darrieussecq, literary theorist Hélène Cixous, and former Socialist Ministers Yvette Roudy and Laurence Rossignol, the manifesto’s title was a provocative double-entendre. The phrase “le masculine emporte sur le féminin” invokes the grammatical rule that the masculine noun must be used whenever one refers to a mixed-gender group. This means that should a man join a group of female basketball players, les joueuses de basket transmogrify into les joueurs de basket. The math of French grammar, in short, dictates that four joueuses plus one joueur equals five joueurs. And this is what the signatories are demanding be changed through various grammatical interventions.

Inevitably and deliberately, the phrase also tapped into the intensifying debate in France over sexual predators. The shockwaves spawned by the Harvey Weinstein affair — the countless and appalling ways in which he and other powerful men “emported” themselves over women — are now crashing onto French shores. Since early October, tens of thousands of women have revealed their encounters of the sordid kind under the hashtag #BalanceTonPorc, which roughly translates as “Out your pig.” At the same time, prominent figures have either been accused of similar crimes, or related their own experiences of sexual harassment. Two women recently accused the controversial Islamic intellectual Tariq Ramadan, a Swiss citizen who has a significant media presence in France, of rape — charges he vehemently denies. This week, by way of reminder that sexual harassment is an equal-opportunity employer, eight women have accused the former leader of the Socialist Party’s youth movement, Thierry Marchal-Beck, of violent sexual behavior. At the same time, Agnès Buzyn, Macron’s minister of health, has recounted the chronic indignities she has faced as a female doctor, while her fellow party member Christophe Arend has been accused by a legislative assistant of sexual harassment.

The flood of confessions and accusations is bound to rise: A recent Odoxa/Le Figaro poll revealed that 53 percent of French women say they have been the object of sexual aggression or harassment. The question posed by the Manifesto of 314, however, pivots on the proper response to this flood. In this particular instance, the question becomes whether language is complicit in the persistence of the social inequities and physical aggressions faced by women. Can words make, and unmake, this particular facet of the world we inhabit?

The answer, according to the 34 “immortals” presiding over the Académie française, is a definitive “non.” Last week, the immortals — 30 of whom happen to be immortels and only four immortelles — released a statement warning against the “mortal peril” that inclusive writing presents to the French language. It is already difficult enough to learn French, they intoned, even without this proposed “aberration.” Conservatives have been elbowing one another aside in order to echo this warning. Marc Fumaroli, a renowned historian of the French language and member of the Académie, spoke for them by declaring that “the French language, whether practiced by Madame de Sévigné or Dominique Bouhours, by Simone de Beauvoir or Jean-Paul Sartre, is a matter of grammar, not political sociology.”

Many conservative critics have focused their ire on the so-called “point médian.” This is the period that partisans of inclusive writing insert in nouns and adjectives in order to include the male and female genders. Thus, les citoyens, or citizens, becomes les, a term that might flop as a call to arms, while even clunkier examples — agriculteurs, or farmers, becomes les agricult.eur.rice.s — would likely drive them off the farms. For the well-known philosopher Raphaël Enthoven, who has published books on semiotics and the absurd, the point médian represents egalitarianism run amuck, a “virtuous form of negationism.” It will, he muttered in a radio interview, “impoverish language as Newspeak did in 1984.”

Tellingly, women who identify as feminists have also expressed, in more measured language, doubts over inclusive writing. The minister of culture, Françoise Nyssen — on leave as president of the prestigious publishing house Actes Sud, admitted that she was “not really in favor” of the practice, while Marlène Schiappa, the government official tasked with addressing gender equality, declared that while she encouraged the “feminization” of French — for example, using phrases like “les Françaises et les Français” — she saw no point to the point médian. “Quite honestly, it is not something I support. I think it is complicated to teach at school.”

For Éliane Viennot, conservative critics have not only caricaturized inclusive writing, but they have also misrepresented the history of the French language. A professor of French literature, Viennot was the driving force behind the manifesto. She notes that feminine nouns like philosophesse and écrivaine were commonplace as late as the 17th century, only to be purged by grammarians determined to “masculinize” the language. It is rather curious, Viennot observes, that whereas conservatives have always accepted “actrice,” and not “acteur” for a female actor, they recoil from “présidente” instead of “président” for a female president. Is it possible, she wonders, that whereas men believe it is normal for a woman to show her body on a theatrical stage, it is abnormal for a woman to show her intelligence on a political stage?

In their preoccupation over the point médian, Viennot argues, conservatives have ignored the relatively modest goals of inclusive writing. It is less a question of peppering nouns with points than of using both the masculine and feminine versions of nouns. After all, Arlette Laguiller, the iconic leader of the Workers’ Struggle party, always addressed her audiences as “travailleurs, travailleuses.” At the other end of the political spectrum, Charles de Gaulle always spoke to “Français, Françaises.” While de Gaulle enraged the 40 immortals as much as did Laguiller, such usages are, at heart, conservative: They recall and revive an earlier and more generous version of the French language.

The advocates of inclusive writing argue this is more than an academic debate. Raphaël Haddad, author of an inclusive writing textbook for elementary school students, insists that, for women, the “semantic disadvantages” in French inexorably lead to “social disadvantages.” One school of linguists dispute Haddad’s assumption. In The Language Instinct, Steven Pinker summarizes this position: “There is no scientific evidence that languages dramatically shape their speakers’ way of thinking.” Other linguists, however, insist that language inevitably filters and forms our experiences of the world. Given the stakes involved, use of the point médian seems a small price to pay to guarantee our droits humains (human rights), and not just droits de l’homme (the rights of man).

Robert Zaretsky is a professor of history at the University of Houston’s Honors College and the author of the forthcoming book Catherine & Diderot: The Empress, the Philosopher, and the Fate of the Enlightenment.


Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola