National Assembly Fines Frenchman For Knowing his Language from A to Z

In the grandiloquent traditions of the National Assembly few issues can inflame passions as much as the French language, its hallowed tones, its fiercely guarded rules of grammar and usage and its politically incorrect forms.

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Thus it came to pass that when Julien Aubert, an eloquent and energetic UMP deputy for the Vaucluse, in a debate on energy, addressed the vice-président or deputy-Speaker of the House, Sandrine Mazetier, a radical feminist Socialist deputy from Paris, as “Madame le Président” rather than “Madame la Présidente” the atmosphere in the chamber quickly became highly charged.

For as grammar purist M. Aubert (or provacteur in the deputy-Speaker’s eyes) pointed out, “Madame le Président” is correct. Given that the word “Président” is a masculine noun the use of the feminine form (la) would in fact refer to someone who was the wife of the Président (“la féminisation se référant à la femme du président”).

M. Aubert did not stop there. When pulled up over a second mention of the contested ‘le’ he defended his grammar point by citing the views of the country’s illustrious defender of all matters linguistic, the Académie Française.

This body has the legal role of pronouncing on grammar disputes and has done so on this one. That however did not deter the duly offended Madame (la/le) Président(e). Reprimanding him she called him to order — a disciplinary procedure that carries formal penalties — and imposed a stiff fine: 1378 euros, or a quarter of his monthly parliamentary allowance, as punishment for using the grammatically correct  ‘le’ form rather than the feminist corruption, ‘la’!

The Académie Française has had its say on the grammar issue - the deputy is right

The Academie Francaise has had its say on the grammar issue – the deputy is right

Following his headmistress-like admonishment steam soon rose from the floor of the house. According to Libération the imposed fine drew sharp opprobrium from fellow deputies and supporters of M Aubert’s linguistic punctiliousness, sanctioned as it has been, by the august Académie Française.

Leftwing members supported the deputy-Speaker’s move and Cécile Duflot a Green Party deputy said: “This isn’t trivial. Many polite UMP members don’t indulge in this type of thing.”

Caroline de Haas, a leading feminist politician, tweeted: “A woman in the chair of the National Assembly seems to disturb the UMP. It’s true, it’s only 2014 after all.”

But invoking the Gulag, Eric Ciotti, a UMP deputy called the deputy-Speaker’s decision “a grotesque and ridiculous sanction” suggesting Socialists “might want to bring back the thought police.”

Another UMP deputy Pierre Morel accused Sandrine Mezetier of “abusing her powers”.

The conservative side may well have a point. For, as that magnificent American songwriting duo Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe jested in My Fair Lady all those decades ago: “In France every Frenchman knows his language from A to Z

None more so, it turns out, than the 40 immortels or members of the Académie Française , the majority of whom are men and whose rulings are final in language matters.

So while the row might appear to be quintessentially French, some would suggest it goes further than just point-scoring between ardent feminist Socialist deputies and some of the more traditional and conservative masculine opposition members of parliament.

For this is a fight as old as, well, the 1789 French Revolution itself. Indeed as French News Online reported earlier when the then conservative UMP government fiddled with another linguistic hot potato it drew a barrage of criticism from among its own ranks: “French Prime Minister François Fillon has directed Ministers of State and Prefectures to ensure that the word “mademoiselle” and other phraseology it deems discriminatory, such as “maiden name” and “spouse’s name”, are removed from all official French documents – but only once existing stocks of forms bearing the terms are all used up”.

Although he lost his case before the Council of State (France’s highest appeal forum) to rollback the above government edict which he claimed effectively removed Mademoiselle as an official form of address in France, the lawyer and right of centre MP Alexandre-Guillaume Tollinchi raised arguments still resonating today as the debate below this extract shows: “M. Tollinchi had sought to overturn the edict on the suppression of the term ‘Mademoiselle’  by claiming that it was a question of polite civility. He had further argued that any government order to remove the term from administrative documents was null and void because it overrode the authority of l’Académie Française: ‘The executive cannot substitute itself for l’Académie Française when it comes to regulating mandatory usage in the language […] above all, the Prime Minister has no power to remove a term from administrative documents. Under the law as promulgated, even ‘if the Prime Minister has hierarchic authority over the administration, he cannot exceed his powers […] by regulating requirements that […] restrict French language usage’. Furthermore the move ‘violates the constitution’[…]”.

The verbatim exchange on Tuesday (October 7) between deputy-Speaker and grammarian was recorded on the National Assembly website as follows:
Sandrine Mazetier: “I call M. Julien Aubert, to support Amendment No. 82”
Julien Aubert: “Thank you, Madam President. (madame le president)”
(Sandrine Mazetier reacts moments later)
Sandrine Mazetier: “M. Aubert, This is a little warning call: it is ‘Madame la Présidente.’ This is a call to order without a formal registration in the parliamentary record. Next time … there will be such an entry.”
Sandrine Mazetier: “I call on M. Julien Aubert, to support Amendment No. 129.”
Julien Aubert:  “Merci, madame (Thank you, ma’am.)”
Sandrine Mazetier: “No, “madame” , will not do either.”
Julien Aubert:  “Because you threatened me …”
Sandrine Mazetier:“No. M. Aubert, you no longer have the floor: either you respect the presidency of these proceedings or there is a problem.”
Julien Aubert: “But I respect …”
Sandrine Mazetier:“You must use the formula madame la présidente, (Madam Chair), or there is a problem.”
Julien Aubert:  “I used the formulation of l’Académie française.”
Sandrine Mazetier:“Well either you use the formulation (I have mentioned) or you will be subject to a written recorded reprimand.”
Julien Aubert: “Do so then, madame le président (Madam Chairman).”
Sandrine Mazetier:“You have been warned: this reprimand is now a written recorded reprimand.”
Julien Aubert: “In my case, I apply the rules as defined by l’Académie française, ‘madame la présidente’ is a designation for the wife of a president.”
Sandrine Mazetier:“Here the rules of the National Assembly, apply. Therefore you are subjected to the recorded reprimand. If you carry on in this way matters may also go further.”
Julien Aubert: “We have already discussed this issue when you were in the chamber and you know that there is a point of disagreement. You want to politicise a simple matter of French grammar.”
Sandrine Mazetier:“I do not politicise anything. Either you show respect for the presidency of proceedings…”
Julien Aubert: “I have great respect!”
Sandrine Mazetier: ” … or if this is not the case, then a problem arises. The rules of this House are available. Read them and you will see.”
Julien Aubert: ”  I fail to see where the rules state that one must use madame la présidente, but in any event….” (And the debate resumed)

The imposed ‘feminisation’ of terms and forms of address regularly gives rise to quarrels in the Assembly because it is rejected by most of the members who sit on the benches to the Right. In Autumn of 2012, Cécile Duflot had a similar exchange with former UMP Speaker of the House, Bernard Accoyer: “I am a woman. Therefore I ask you to call me Madam Minister”, she said at the time.

The cover of the 1835 version of the Dictionary of the French Academy (Credit Wikipedia)

The cover of the 1835 version of the Dictionary of the French Academy (Credit Wikipedia)

As Libération noted: “The National Assembly made it a rule to feminise the language with regard to offices and functions sixteen years ago. A circular was issued in 1998 by (Socialist) Prime Minister Lionel Jospin requiring ‘the use of the female form for names of professions, formal offices, ranks or titles when it applies to terms where the feminine form is in wide common usage such as, la secrétaire générale, la directrice, la conseillère (secretary-general, director, counsellor).’

“The decision at that time, provoked the ire of l’Académie française which in the name of proper grammatical usage noted, ‘le’ designates here not only men but also the neuter form as applied here to the function: ‘The use of the feminine form in titles such as the La ministre, and Madame la Ministre … is a grammatical error — lack of word agreement — resulting from confusion in understanding the difference between the person and the function,’ says the 9th edition of the Academy’s dictionary Dictionnaire de l’Académie Française (L’emploi du féminin dans La ministre, et dans Madame la Ministre, … constitue une faute d’accord résultant de la confusion de la personne et de la function).

But, adds the paper: “l’Académie Française was created by Louis XIII and Richelieu, l’Assemblée nationale by the Revolution. Deputies sit in the beautiful Palais Bourbon, and the Immortals and their ‘proper usage’ are not much in favour, at least not on the benches where the Left sits in the House. When politics becomes so tainted with ideology, it seeks to control everything, even the language. Ardent feminist activist, Madame Mazetier for instance, even demands that we rechristen the écoles maternelles (kindergartens but here literally maternal schools) because she considers the term to be ‘sexist’ “.

This intriguing battle between hardline feminists and those who uphold the purity of the language above all, is one which other Francophone countries are also waging under the umbrella of the epicene movement.

Here a writer in the Guardian newspaper of London noted: “As with many Latin languages, the masculine form trumps everything when it comes to grammatical agreement of adjectives and so forth. We say Un Français et trente millions de Françaises sont contents; those 30 million French women have to be contents in the masculine form as dictated by their one male companion, rather than contentes as they would be without him…”

The language fight fiercely divides public opinion of course. But judging from the more than 200 comments on the Libération report the balance favours linguistic purity.

Here for example is one commenter:

nom féminin
Femme d’un président.

adding when called out:

@tsukitsu @poilonez
Sauf qu’on ne “devient” pas président.
On occupe la fonction.
La fonction reste inchangé.
Elle ne dépend pas du sexe de celui qui l’exerce.

POILONEZ first offers Larousse dictionary definitions for the masculine and feminine forms of the French for president. Then in the second comment adds “Except that we do not become a president, we occupy a function which goes by that name and this function remains unchanged, it is not dependent upon the sex of the person who is occupying the function”.

The French love of and admiration for their language is a cultural value-add. The “corruptions” the politically correct seek to impose on French (as on English and other languages), just generates push back for many reasons, not the least because of the perversity of the thought control and manipulation PC ‘corruptions’ tend to represent. In French more particularly concerns expressed by the ‘immortals’ in defending the language, are surely linked to the serious grammatical preoccupation of a nation nurtured on Cartesian linguistics (developed in the time of 17th century French philosopher René Descartes) where as Chomsky notes, the “general features of grammatical structure … reflect certain fundamental properties of the mind.”

Despair all you sloppy users of English!

Story: Ken Pottinger

updated2crop-150x76-e1397767575227In a later development Figaro reports that 140 opposition MPs sent a letter to the Speaker of the House, Claude Bartolone, calling for the sanction to be annulled.

“At the initiative of former Prime Minister Francois Fillon and the Yvelines MP Henri Guaino, more than 140 members of the opposition have urged the President of the Assembly to rescind the penalty imposed on their colleague Julien Aubert … Does the fining of a member for speaking proper French within the confines of the French National Assembly, mean that the Assembly now claims the right to set the rules of the French language?… surely this is but a step away from the gates of totalitarianism?… The unpleasant sound of these (feminised) words serves to express the martyrdom inflicted by the ideology of an excessive feminisation so foreign to one of the most beautiful languages ​​in the world, one forged by centuries of civilization and culture?” their letter says.

This report has been corrected to describe the main protagonist as “vice-président or deputy-Speaker” of the house. The original report wrongly referred to her as the président (chairman or Speaker).

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