French premier takes sides in attempts to balance linguistic gender bias

Edouard Philippe urges ministers and staff not to use ‘inclusive writing’ in official texts

French prime minister Edouard Philippe addresses a session of questions to the government, at the National Assembly in Paris, on Wednesday. Photograph: Francois Guillot/AFP/Getty Images

French prime minister Edouard Philippe addresses a session of questions to the government, at the National Assembly in Paris, on Wednesday. Photograph: Francois Guillot/AFP/Getty Images

 

French prime minister Edouard Philippe has taken sides in the linguistic battle over “inclusive writing” that has raged for two months, since the academic publisher Hatier produced a history manual according to rules intended to diminish the gender bias of the French language.

In a circular published in Wednesday’s official journal of record, the prime minister “invites” cabinet ministers and those under their authority “not to use so-called inclusive writing in official texts”.

Curiously, the trend in French is towards greater feminisation of the language in the name of equality, just as English is doing the opposite. For example, women actors are no longer called “actresses” in English, while French women demand that a female cabinet minister be called la ministre, a female ambassador l’ambassadeure and a female prosecutor la procureure.

Precedence

Éliane Viennot, the retired professor who has become “Madame inclusive writing” in French media, notes that in pre-revolution France the feminine terms philosophesse, poétesse and peintresse were widely used.

But the rule dictating that “masculine takes precedence over feminine” has held sway since the 18th century. More than 30,000 people have signed an online petition against it, and 314 teachers endorsed Viennot’s “manifesto” on slate.fr. They refuse to teach the “dishonourable rule” which they believe “induces mental representations that lead women and men to accept the domination of one sex by another”.

Philippe’s circular encourages the feminisation of titles. But it forbids the two main precepts of inclusive writing, the “middle point” and “proximity agreement”.  

The “middle point” is inserted after the masculine version of a noun and followed by letters indicating the feminine version. For example, instead of électeurs, French voters become electeurs.rice.s.

The proximity rule specifies that in a list of masculine and feminine nouns, the noun closest to the adjective determines the gender of the adjective. “The brother and sister are handsome” becomes “Le frère et la soeur sont belles” instead of beaux.

Clarity

The prime minister’s circular demands that “state administrations conform to rules of grammar and syntax for reasons of intelligibility and clarity”.

There is speculation that Philippe, who left the conservative party Les Républicains to serve President Emmanuel Macron, is trying to please conservative elements of French society with his ruling.

On October 26th, the Académie Francaise, which was founded in 1635 to protect French, voted unanimously to raise “a cry of alarm” against “this ‘inclusive’ aberration of the French language” which “creates a confusion close to illegibility”. The academicians labelled the trend “a mortal peril” for future generations. Those who want to increase the language’s already considerable complexity ensure that “other languages” – for which read “English” – would “take advantage to prevail throughout the world”.

On November 15th, the education minister, Jean-Michel Blanquer, told the National Assembly that there could be “only one French language, only one grammar and only one Republic”.

It was time to “pull the plug” on the Académie, Viennot said. The “immortal ones” had “yet again proven their toadyism, their determination to impede the march towards equality and especially their incompetence”.