The French Parliament has taken the first steps toward approving a law that would ban discrimination based on a person’s accent. Violations could be punished by a maximum of 3 years in prison and a fine up to €45,000.
This will no doubt bring a sense of justice to the large number of people in France who speak with regional accents but often feel a sense of disdain in a country dominated culturally, politically, and economically by Paris.
According to Ouest-France, an IFOP poll in January 2020 found that 16% of French people claimed to have been the victims of discrimination in hiring because of their accent. In France, this phenomenon is known as “la glottophobie.”
“It is about stigmatizing or treating a person differently, particularly regarding their access to a right or a resource, such as a job, using a linguistic pretext,” Philippe Blanchet, a linguist and teacher at Rennes University, told Ouest-France.
The French are famously fastidious about their language. There is one correct way to say things in French, and any deviation is met with raised eyebrows. For teenagers, the official goal is “to perfect” one’s French by the end of high school. They are subjected to rigorous lessons that include such traditional exercises as the “dictée” where a teacher speaks or reads a passage out loud and students must write it exactly.
This push for homogeneity tends to paper over the reality that France has numerous regional accents, ranging from Brittany in the Northwest to Marseille in South to the Ch’ti in the Northeast. A popular French comedy, “Bienvenue chez les Ch’tis,” played with this notion of odd regional accents.
These French accents are nowhere near as varied as the difference between a New York City and Texas accent in the United States. Or the gap between a London and Glaswegian accent in the U.K. But to French ears (or Parisian ones, at least) there is a yawning chasm between French and whatever people in other regions are trying to speak.
As such, these accents can leave their mark. This past summer, the appointment of Jean Castex as prime minister caused a stir, in part, because he has a Southern accent. Indeed, several commentators at the time noted how unusual it was to hear someone with an accent at the highest ranks of government.
That leads to a lot of humor and jokes. But for many, there are practical consequences, according to National Assembly deputy Christophe Euzet, who comes from the Southern department of Hérault. In an interview with France Culture, Euzet explained why he began writing the bill over a year ago. Generally, people with accents in France are less likely to be promoted to upper management, invited to appear on television, or taken seriously in cultural contexts.
“I realized how much I had an accent when I started going out in Parisian academic circles,” he told France Culture. “I have found that every time I start to speak there is a smile. I have to show that I am serious.”
On November 25, the National Assembly took the initial step toward adopting the law by approving the first reading of the bill. On Twitter, Euzet sought to explain just what the law would — and would not — ban. For instance, he said jokes and humor would not be impacted. Rather, the main target is the workplace:
“This law opens the debate to evolve the mentalities based on stereotypes that are associated with accents and can sometimes lead to discrimination,” he wrote.
Blanchet, the researcher, told Ouest-France that beyond banning discrimination in official settings such as work or government, he’s hopeful the law will have a cultural impact.
“If there is a ban, then it’s because society decided at some point that it was not ethically, morally, and socially acceptable to treat people like that,” he said.