All who have at some stage learned French will know the jealousy with which French people – and not just an intellectual elite – guard their tongue.
It is a raison d’être of the Académie Française to protect this most immaculate confection.
The invasion of words from other languages – especially the ever-insistent English of les rosbifs – continues to be aggressively resisted, though it has always seemed to me that the prevalence of English words in modern French has more to do with the Americans than with the British.
Whereas it used just to be le week-end and le sandwich, French has had to put up with all sorts of abominations for which there are perfectly good French words already in existence – can there be an excuse for le meeting or le brunch?
No, of course not. And now there is a new such word: le wokisme.
Brigitte Macron is a former literature teacher
Earlier mutations were explained by historical forces: all languages, even French, have over the centuries absorbed words from elsewhere.
The English language borrowed thousands of French words after the Norman conquest, then thousands of Latin and Greek ones after the renaissance; and once Britain had imperial possessions in India and the Middle East it acquired words from kedgeree to kiosk, as indeed, the French did from the Levant.
However, French is now threatened by a political force: gender neutrality, and its main opponent in language is Brigitte Macron, the nation’s First Lady.
Mme Macron, a former literature teacher who met her husband when she led a theatre workshop in the school where he was a pupil, has attacked gender-neutral pronouns – as with those Anglophones who identify themselves as non-binary and like to be referred to as ‘they’/ ‘them’.
The tyranny of wokeism in the Anglosphere ensured that anyone in America or Britain who referred to such linguistic absurdities was howled down by the Twitter mob.
Mme Macron is made of stronger stuff
A year ago she attacked France’s dictionary Le Petit Robert for including the gender-neutral pronoun ‘iel’ as a substitute for either ‘il’ or ‘elle’.
After her intervention it became clear that matters had become worse, with ‘iel’ becoming the ‘formal’ version of ‘ol’, ‘yul’ and ‘ul’.
Undeterred, she has returned to the fray, after an even worse construct in these gender wars manifested itself.
Looks like ‘acne on a page’
In written communications the left-wing city council in Paris, and apparently also the Sorbonne, which ought to know better, have started to apply gender neutrality to all sorts of words that hitherto displayed characteristics of masculinity or femininity.
Thus, whereas I might once have wished to address each of you as ‘cher lecteur’, were I under the woke tyranny I should have to use the form ‘cher.e.s lecteur.rice.s’, thereby seeking to include both existing forms and supposedly neutralising them by making them plural.
To suggest that whoever devised such a ludicrous formulation needs to get out more hardly begins to describe the absurdity. One contact aptly described it as like ‘acne on a page’.
In seeking to kill feminine versions of words the French wokistes are following an Anglophone precedent – the acting profession, except in the Oscars, has long despised the word ‘actress’ and instead calls women ‘actors’; and it is a long time since anyone wrote the words ‘authoress’ or ‘poetess’ with a straight face.
Nobody in the Anglosphere appears to have noticed – yet – that the female simply adopted the historically male form.
Mme Macron feels she speaks for the silent majority
In France, thanks to the greater care and precision traditionally taken over the language, this has been noticed, hence the contortions now gone through to pretend there is no distinction between a lecteur and a lectrice.
These concocted forms are mad enough when they are written: guidance appears to be lacking, so far, on how one is supposed to pronounce them if one tries to adapt the spoken word to the ordinances of woke.
Mme Macron has said she feels she speaks for the silent majority in France, and we should not doubt her.
One does not need to be a blue in tooth and claw reactionary – she certainly is not – to defend a language that works perfectly well and makes perfect sense to all but the smallest minority of fanatics who insist on imposing their view on the vast majority of the population.
And Mme Macron, in declaring her view, spoke with the common sense of a professional teacher of long standing, saying that it was hard enough as it was to learn the ‘beautiful’ French language, and that it would be mad to pile further complexities on top of an already complex subject.
Support from Académie Française and Rassemblement National
Unsurprisingly, Mme Macron has found an immediate ally in the Académie Française, which rightly and immediately spotted the bogus American cultural influence in this political movement, and denounced it.
The Rassemblement National has also sounded off about a “grotesque and mendacious ideology” starting to make itself apparent in the matter of male and female distinctions in French life.
This has been going on in the Anglosphere for some time: what France now has to look forward to is spectating upon a fissure on the left, as groups supporting feminists take on groups supporting transgender rights activists, the former claiming (with some justification) that the latter wish to eliminate women who identify as women from the debate altogether.
Language, it seems, is where it begins
France has long had a political fringe that draws its inspiration not from currents and concerns in domestic French politics, but from those in a wider world.
It is precisely because these matters are usually quite arcane that those who obsess about them tend to make little connection with the French electorate.
If France is lucky, it may avoid these navel-gazing debates altogether. After all, its political class, led by Mme Macron’s husband, has a great deal more serious things to worry about.
But I fear that her valiant attempt to nip it in the bud may not work entirely: we have not, in all likelihood, heard the end of le wokisme.
Brigitte Macron’s comments came during an interview with L’Obs magazine in December.
The previous Education Minister, Jean-Michel Blanquer, banned teachers from using gender-neutral writing in classrooms in 2021, saying dots in the middle of words are a barrier to comprehension.