Minding the Borderlands

Mark Koester (@markwkoester) on the art of travel and technology

France, One Nation Under the French Language? Unseen Tensions in the National Fabric


With my students last week, we talked about the recent events concerning the ethnic violence in Kenya after the presidential election. These events are, as I said (and subsequently had to explain), literally tearing apart the national fabric of Kenya. Surface Tensions in France’s National Fabric

Leaving aside the complexity of the situation in Kenya for which neither I nor my student have much expertise, I tried to discuss the nature of the national fabric of France (or their own respective countries, including Spain and Morocco). I had planned a brief discussion which subsequently turned into a full session about what is central to French (narrative) identity and what issues provoke the most tensions.

The question I used was the following:

NATIONAL FABRIC: Talk with your partner(s) about what makes up the national fabric of your country. Use the points below to help you. Rank them in order of which creates the biggest tensions. Share your ideas with others.

a. ___|__ ethnic background
b. ___|__ religion
c. ___|__ language
d. ___|__ caste / class
e. ___|__ wealth
f. ___|__ color
g. ___|__ sports team
h. ___|__ family name

I obviously biased their responses a bit in giving these particular examples, but it was still interesting to note the fact that this question was “something they had never really thought about.”

The majority of my students cited wealth and religion as the biggest contributors of tension in France, meaning differences in wealth or in religion often act as the crux of many difficulties. These two were followed more or less by class and ethnic background. These responses are far from surprising if you follow French news and understand to some degree French society.

The continued problems and riots in the “Banlieus” (the French equivalent of the ghettos situated outside of majority city centers) show repeatedly the fact that France is a divided society, such that certain groups remain in futureless poverty (a state often characterized by heavy drinking and cannabis usage along with little interest in the education and participating in high risk activities like driving a motorbike stoned and drunk) while the other, more elite sections of society go to certain schools, know certain people, and eventually have access to certain jobs and positions in society. For the majority of the French, this problem relates to a tension in the ethnic background (namely, discrimination against the people originating from Northern Africa, the Magreb), wealth/class (specifically against the poor, working class), and education (or lack of the same status of schools and of teachers).

On the other hand, one of the least tensions in French society is the national football team (Go Zidaine!), which when they win big matches or championships represents a moment of societal ecstasy and craziness. France does relatively well in many international competitions.

Everyone is happy when our team wins and sad or disappointed when they lose, whether it is the national or regional team. This point is interesting, because you could say that local sports teams cause marked rivalry and regionalism in France. One of the biggest rivalries and points of contention in France is between fans of Marseille and fans of Paris St Germaine. Post-match violence is not uncommon in important matches.

Almost unanimously my students (and every French person I’ve met and discussed with) agree that the French language is the most central and important aspect of the French national fabric. While France has a history of linguistic diversity between the Bretagne and the Alsace regions as well as other local dialects, post-World War II France saw the positive discrimination against local cultures and languages in favor of constitutionally defended law that the national language of France is French. Many Alsatians spoken a form of German before and during the war, but over the last 50 or so years, more and more parents who learned Alsatian as their native language are speaking French and not Alsatian with their children. As is obvious on a surface level, the language of France is “French.”

France, one nation under the French language

But what French or whose French are we talking about?

All education in France is done in a very particular French. I’ve seen how French students study, memorize, and scrutinize their national language in a very aggressive, almost political manner. Speaking and writing the “juste” French is highly regarded, and an important part of their high school graduation examination depends on writing and speaking well in this French. Other countries like Spain, Switzerland, or Belgium are legally and numerically multilingual, and the European Union promotes the protection and promotion of regional languages. But France, to rephrase the classic American motto, is one nation under the French language.

Ironically, one of my students mentioned one item that wasn’t in my list, namely French culture or literature. For this 40-something French man from Alsace whose parents spoke Alsacian, one of the central aspects of the French national fabric is its literature. He cited Montagne, Molière, Baudelaire, Rousseau, etc. as current examples of the height and grandeur of French society such that these writers form a key component of France’s national identity. I suppose many other countries would claim some important writer or artist as part of their national identity, and in many French contexts, such a remark would pass without much disagreement, because the French see themselves as a culturally affluent and intellectually cultivated nation. And if the French language, as everyone seemed to agree, is central to their identity, then the pillars of French society, according to this elevated view of French language, culture, and literature, are these classic writers and poets.

I myself have spent a considerable amount of time reading and reflecting on French poetry (particularly, Baudelaire grâce à T.S. Eliot as well as Valery and Rimbaud). There is nothing wrong in exploring these luxurious artworks of language and history. Their words not only work through ideas and conflicts but work through the very feeling and meaning of the French language in a literary and artistic sense. Any appreciator of poetry and the poetic tongue cannot help but feel like an arrow is being shot skywards when they read and feel the words of Charles Péguy on the Cathedral of Chartes:

*Tour de David voici votre tour beauceronne.
C’est l’épi le plus dur qui soit jamais monté
Vers un ciel de clémence et de sérénité,
Et le plus beau fleuron dedans votre couronne. *

While to enjoy and relish these poetic words comme tel, as such, isn’t a bad thing and might even be a great, aspiring or enriching activity in the sense that we learn about the way words, music, and ideas are tied together in new, old, and interesting respects, this doesn’t mean this classic, historically dated poetry is the only French language. In fact, I think most of my students, especially the student citing Molière, missed an important but less noticed tension in their national fabric, namely that France, in spite of claiming to be one nation under the unique “French” language, is a country divided by a diversity of ways of speaking French. Many educated French people defend passionately the continued learning and teaching of “le bon français.” But the fact of the matter is that France is divided by language (langage) or languages (langues).

While the rich, the media, the education, the educated, the president, and the “good” French speak the “bon français,” a large portion of French society speak an entirely different language in an entirely different way. It’s still French but there’s nothing “bon” about it, because while the educated struggle to understand this language in need of education and transformation, the excluded speak, write, text-message and sing in this so brutally treated French language.

Langue or Langage de Banlieu?: Identity politics of language in French society

While in the English there is only one word for language, there are in fact two words from language in French, namely langue and langage. Let’s look at the dictionary Larousse to clarify these two words. **

The word “langue” is generally the first word for “language” a foreign learner of French will first encounter, for example as “la langue française” (the French language); or “je parle deux langues étrangères” (I speak two foreign languages.). The word has several meanings and usages:

Definitional Breakdown of the word Langue (f.)
1.) Muscle: In a physical or medical sense, langue means “tongue” or the muscular organ in the mouth used for eating, tasting, and speaking. (For example, when a French speaker struggles find his or her words or to say what she or he has “in mind,” like in the English, they might say “avoir quelque chose sur le bout de la langue,” on the tip of their tongue.)
2.) Spoken language: the system of verbal signs used to communicate. (la langue russe = the Russian language)
3.) Way of speaking: the particular way of expressing oneself or language (langue de poètes or language of poets)

In the world of politics, a politicians who says things “along party lines” or in a dogmatic way is said to be speaking the langue de bois or literally a wooden language, meaning that their ideas are very rigid, uninspired, and simply repeating classic, party ideas.

We already see in the third definition the fact that all definitions refer back upon a kind of self-referencing. Namely, langue as a way of speaking means in some way langage. Outside of the limited examples of words, in the literal sense, “pointing to” real-world objects, most words are interconnected and, as such, are defined metaphorically and relationally to other words and ideas.

The word langage has a much more open definition and usage and follows more in the sense of way of speaking than a system of signs and symbols:

Definitional Breakdown of the word Langage (m.)
1.) Human (sic) faculty to communicate his or her ideas through a system of spoken (=oral) or graphic (=written) signs, i.e. troubles du langage.
2.) Any system permitting communication through gestures (i.e. langage gestuel) or other modes of expression (by way of symbols and artistic forms, i.e. langage des fleurs (= langage of flowers) or langage de la peinture (= language of painting)).
3.) Way of speaking (propre à) intrinsically tied to a social or professional group or to a discipline, i.e. langage adminstratif.
4.) Content of a political speech or discourse, i.e. “il a parlé un double langage.”
5.) The overall codes and rules allowing one to program instructions and information in a computer. * *

While dictionaries, especially their etymology, provide us with a wealth of intercrossing ideas as to the usages, origins, and modification of words, dictionaries don’t always give us a straight or simple answer as to what something is or means. This is the case in the definitions of langue and langage. The first means more or less an “official” or standard system of communicating as in French, English or Russian languages. While the second has a less clear dictionary definition, the word language in usage often stands for the way the langue is used and expressed. When my students referred to the importance of the French language, they were referring to the French langue and not the different French languages or ways of speaking. But is such a distinction so simple to make?

Linguists would be quick to claim that (almost) all of France speaks one language, that being the French langue. Linguists are also aware of the fact that not all French speakers use the same vocabulary or even exactly the same “grammar.” But these are not the differences of two languages but of two or more differing ways of speaking. So for the linguists, all the French speak the same French langue while different groups speak different varieties or languages.

Linguists study a language and its diversity as a research object. They’re simply describing and classifying what they hear, read, and understand through generally symbolic communication. Their job is to say what is, not to say what should be.

On the other hand, teachers, school administrators, and parents are not simply about preserving what is (i.e. its current language and customs) in society but promoting and teaching a certain way of speaking a language. Their concern is normative, about enforcing how their students should speak, write, think, reason, etc. As such, school administrators have based the entire educational system upon teaching a certain French langage (or as the French often say, le bon français) while in reality the French langue remains something else, something freer and nearly impossible to pin-down for all eternity in a classroom or a grammar book.

The French continue to teach Molière and other classic French writers and thinkers as though time has stopped or has been frozen and only those who wrote in this one style or who continue to write in this one style mean anything important. This is markedly true of certain rappers in France, who are very popular for the majority of French youth but remain officially outside of the classroom walls because it isn’t “bon.”

Take for example, the French rappers IAM’s video Demain, c’est loin or Akhenaton’s La Fin De Leur Monde, which gives a graphically lively description of how the other half of French society. This is poetry in both traditional and untraditional ways. There is structure, rhythm, and rhyme. There are plays on words and words in play. But the words and message are not exactly the same as in classic literature. The world has changed and so has language, music, and the combining of music sample and explosive words in the form of rap. These songs talk about dead-end lives where school means nothing; where work is hard to find; where people are too unmotivated to look for it; where drugs are rampant, and where friendship is only as important as a guy who’s able to find weed (“Meilleurs liens d’amitié qu’un type puisse trouver”). Considering the continuing political discourses aimed at “saving” the suburbs, there is something hopeless about these echoing words:

*Lendemain? C’est pas le problème, on vit au jour le jour
On n’a pas le temps ou on perd de l’argent, les autres le prennent
Demain, c’est loin, on n’est pas pressé, au fur et à mesure
On avance en surveillant nos fesses pour parler au futur Futur, le futur ne changera pas grand-chose, les générations prochaines
Seront pires que nous, leur vie sera plus morose
Notre avenir, c’est la minute d’après le but, anticiper
Prévenir avant de se faire clouer

Clouer, clouer sur un banc rien d’autre à faire, on boit de la bière
On siffle les gazières qui n’ont pas de frère
Les murs nous tiennent comme du papier tue-mouches
On est là, jamais on s’en sortira, Satan nous tient avec sa fourche

Let me attempt a rough translation :

The day after? That’s not the problem. We live from day to day.
We haven’t got time or we lose some money, the others take it.
Tomorrow is far. We’re not in a hurry. As we go along,
we advance forward watching our asses for future talking

Future, the future won’t change much. The coming generations
Will be worse off than us. Their lives will be gloomier.
Our future, that’s the minute after the goal, anticipating,
forecasting before getting nailed

Nailed, nailed on a bench with nothing else to do but drink beer
And hissing (or catcalling) at the gasline operators without a brother
The walls holds us down like fly-paper
We’re there, never are we going to get out. Satan will hold us down with his fork.

Admittedly much of the sounds gets lost in translation, but at least you can see what their singing about, about hopelessness and the pinning down of their lives.

If we compare these words with those of Péguy we cited earlier, it’s hard not to see two different ways of speaking relating to two different ways of being. The same situation could be found in comparing English-language rap and classic poetry. But in fact this example of rap music only gets to part of the problem, because while the majority of French speakers would be able upon one or two listens to understand more or less what these songs are about, excluding certain vocabulary, this ability to understand a song by a well-thought-out, well-spoken French rapper does not necessarily apply to understanding all the French youth or at least so many French speakers claim.

One several occasions teachers at “professional” or “trade” high schools where I worked remarked that they didn’t understand what their students said. This wasn’t because these were foreign-born students but that their language wasn’t the same language the teachers spoke themselves. A large part of my major “dive” into French culture and society were in these schools where I found my “textbook” French unhelpful in understanding and communicating with my students. But over time by having certain friends, watching certain TV shows, working in certain neighborhoods, and listening to rap music, I learned this “French” langage. I also learned the official or standard French such that I understand to some extent the ways of speaking (and subsequently of being) in both of these linguistic communities.

The average French person has a negative bias towards this suburban language or language de banlieu. They see this language as bad and unacceptable. Some would even go so far as saying this way of speaking is a disfiguration of the French language. In a recent article in the French press entitled Les linguistes ont d’autres mots à dire, linguist Alain Kihm talks about the bias of certain linguists have towards the language of French youth. One linguist named Alain Bentolila even went so far as to claim that these French youth have a “linguistic lacking” («déficit linguistique») seen through “a very pale and lifeless vocabulary and an approximating organization of expressions («vocabulaire exsangue et une organisation approximative des phrases»). His logic is that their “close-linked communication” means that their communication can be made through half-finished cues signifying things everyone in the group knows and understands. If Bentolila’s logic was true, then we would expect to find a similar “linguistic lacking” in so-called nomad or clan societies. But in fact, anthropologists have shown that in fact these languages are as complex, if not more so, than the languages in modern nation-states.

I think my example of French rap music equally denies the claim the language of French youth is somehow lacking something from the standard French. And if you want to complain that the language of French youth is lacking something, then you could say that it is lacking the critical, glaring eye of someone watching and scrutinizing in a very normative way. This is not necessary a bad thing, because the language of French youth is flexible and creative in different way than that of so-called “standard” French.

I think the comment of this French linguist as well as those of my “educated” French students reflects a very old, entrenched prejudice, namely that the poor don’t really have any “culture” and, consequently lack (good) language. While many artists could never have produced great artworks without the financial backing of rich benefactors, this doesn’t mean that creative and expressive art isn’t being produced in all “levels” of society. Numerous historical examples of songs and dance have been lost because they were never transcribed nor preserved in writing. But that doesn’t mean they didn’t exist nor does it reflect a lack of artistic versatility.

Going both ways: Towards a pluralistic society

The average, French person (much like the average American person I think would) denies that the French youth speak “good French.” In this way, cultural barriers are put up blocking connections and understandings between two French-speaking peoples. Education further entrenches this division by maintaining an absurdly dated form of the “bon français,” which excludes these youth as proper French speakers (would one go so far as to claim that the Quebecois don’t really speak “proper” French? Or even vis-versa?). There is a dark-lining to this educational policy, because it results in a non-recognition of a group’s particular way of being and speaking.

Equally frustrating is the fact that the French youth are not learning the “good French” and through this act of resistance they close off many opportunities in education, business and throughout later life. Business won’t hire someone who “speaks like that,” dress like that, and ultimately, thinks like that, because it isn’t right, it isn’t good. Standard French remains the principal way that these youth have access to a respectable, dignified future in French society.

But this problem goes both ways. French society is divided by two ways of speaking and being. Both are denying the value of the other. Neither is learning the other’s way of speaking. Teachers are frustrated by students that repeatedly fail to make the level. Students feel disconnected by teachers who come from a different world and speak a different language. These are cultural misunderstandings. And I think the only way to improve this so-often unseen tension in France’s national fabric is build bridges that go both ways and even ultimately transgress in a plurality of ways.

My adult, French students in claiming that the French language is the important part of French identity missed the fact that there really isn’t “juste” one French language but in fact a plethora of ways of speaking. These differences shouldn’t be denied, and in fact, I would claim that French teachers need to learn these ways of speaking and even use them in order to show respect and dignity to these people.

Equally important is teaching students to speak and write in “standard” French. Often politicians and general citizens attempt to claim that teaching good French to these “linguistically lacking” French youth is the most important and unique problem, but in fact they are missing half the pie. They are claiming a certain vision of France as unified and seamless whole. In this nationalistic, centralized vision, what matters is a grounded form of cultural similarity and assimilation. Difference needs to be avoided, because what matters most is the unification of a single, unique identity.

These are old, French notions of cultural and national identity, which continue to evoke the idea of “integration,” a word so often connected with French immigration policy. This nationalist model of integration fails on numerous levels, because it not only doesn’t recognize cultural differences but it goes so far as to deny them any real, public worth.

The only way to improve this so present yet so invisible difference in France’s national fabric is aiming at “going both ways,” such the society recognizes and celebrates differences in culture and language while also educating good and necessary habitual similarities in ways of doing and expressing. The only way to do is through a pluralistic notion of an open society. Only then can we claim to be speaking the same yet differing language.