Lucy Wadham is author of ‘The Secret Life of France’
In a nation still reeling from its worst-ever terrorist attack, where the far right regularly garners 30 per cent of the vote and where youth unemployment hovers around 25 per cent, it might seem puzzling that the big political debate this month in France should centre on the possible abolition of the circumflex accent.
Yet I was not surprised that an old spelling reform, first put forward in 1990 by the Superior Council of the French Language and approved by the formidable and neophobic Académie Française, should have stirred up more moral outrage on Twitter than any government measure since the beginning of the year. As Napoleon wrote from exile on the island of St Helena: “France is French when it is well written.” The French language is the seat of the French soul and you mess with it at your peril.
So there is no new reform. There is simply a government “announcement” about the imminent application of the original reform in schools from September. We are in the realm of spin, and that spin involves Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, who is being pushed into the limelight in her dual capacity as education minister and cherished symbol of French cultural assimilation. But why all this passion unleashed for the circumflex in maîtresse, for the rogue — and mute — “i” in oignon, for the baffling second acute accent in événement?
The passion and outrage appears to be most voluble among the educated over-40s. (Anyone younger or less educated seems to have other poissons à frire than rallying round the hashtag, je suis circonflexe.) The reason for this, I think, is that ever since François I first standardised the language, correct usage has been an indication of quality, both social and moral.
For example, politicians who speak bad French tend to be mistrusted. For an entire week in the run-up to the 2007 presidential elections, the media was fascinated by Ségolène Royal’s use of the word bravitude to mean “bravery” (it was a neologism of her own invention), as opposed to the evocative and chivalric word, bravoure. Her opponents seized on this as proof of her unsuitability for the highest office. A president, it was pointed out, had to speak French that was “pure and irreproachable”.
This logocentric snobbery is not a left-right thing. President François Hollande and his cronies, at their summer dinner parties in the Lubéron, will delight just as much as their rightwing counterparts on the Côte d’Azur, in a little punning and subjunctive sparring. This generation retains in its DNA the horror — inherited from the merciless court system of the ancien régime — of appearing stupid. As such it prefers wit to humour, which is not the case for most younger French people.
Why is this happening now? Its language is one of France’s most powerful totems, and French spelling, which is predominantly etymological rather than phonetic, locks history inside it in a way that English does not. It is unfortunate, however, that minds should be distracted by this skirmish while the government prepares to modify the constitution in order to remove the citizenship of French-born bi-nationals found guilty of “a crime that represents a serious threat to the life of the of the nation”.