French Language Policy: Centrism, Orwellian dirigisme, or Economic Determinism?

Harold F. Schiffman
Dept. of South Asian Regional Studies
University of Pennsylvania

Note on publication.

To students of language policy, France has what can be considered to be the most centrist of centrist language policies in the world.

``Notre centralisme linguistique, le plus ancien et le plus consommé d'Europe, est bien connu: Philippe le Bel, François Ier, Richelieu, Colbert, la Convention, Napoléon, Jules Ferry et d'autres encore l'ont illustré." (Catach 1991:7)
The idea that centrism can be effective as a language policy rests upon some notions, however, that need to be examined. Centrism means of course that decisions are made at the center, i.e. the center of power in the polity, and as far as France is concerned, the center/periphery dichotomy is perfectly represented by the language situation: at the geographic center of the hexagon is the French language, while at the periphery--Bretagne, le Midi, Corsica, Alsace--there is almost no region where French is native. The history of France is the history of the spread of French (le francien) out from the Ile de France into these marginal territories. This can be seen quite clearly in Figure 1: Map of French Expansion.

Dirigisme is defined in my dictionary as the attempt to direct and control things from one central place, in particular to centrally direct and control a nation's economy. That is, dirigisme is economic centrism. Though France was never part of the Soviet bloc, the idea of central planning of the economy involved strong state intervention in economic and financial affairs, going so far as to construct and attempt to carry out five-year plans, to move and relocate industry around the country, and do other kinds of things that are more typical of the Soviet economic model than, e.g., the American one. The idea that language could be controlled in this same way, by central decision-making, has been around in France for a long time, dating to the promulgation of the Ordonnance de Viller-Cotterêts in 1539. The French Revolution gave us other kinds of intervention on behalf of language, such as measures to annihilate the idiomes, patois, jargons and other kinds of non-standard French, deemed counterrevolutionary or even worse. The decrees and ordonnances of the Revolution appropriated and perpetuated the monarchic view that language could be controlled from the center, whereas the view that central control of language was just possibly undemocratic (as it would be seen, e.g., in Anglo-Saxon countries) has never been part of assumptions about French language policy.

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