Académie Française rejects push to make French language less masculine

The dome of the Academie Française (French Academy) is shown here on July 18 in Paris.
The dome of the Academie Française (French Academy) is shown here on July 18 in Paris. PATRICK KOVARIK / AFP

The esteemed Académie Française – France's highest authority on matters pertaining to the French language – has warned that proposals to use less masculine terminology pose a “mortal danger” to the language.


On Thursday, the Académie Française released a fiery condemnation of attempts to make French more gender-inclusive with new spellings.

“Faced with the aberration of 'inclusive writing', the French language finds itself in mortal danger,” the statement published on the Académie’s website reads.

According to French grammatical rules, the masculine takes precedence over the feminine. So while a group of women is referred to with the feminine, if just one man joins their ranks, the entire group is referred to as masculine. In recent years, activists have been pushing to change that. Increasingly, politicians, civil servants, associations and, notably, members of French President Emmanuel Macron’s administration are getting on board and taking care to address, for example, not just “Les Français” but “Les Françaises et les Français”.

Activists are also pushing for more inclusive written language. In 2015, the High Council of Equality Between Men and Women (often referred to simply as the HCE), a French governmental body that reports to the prime minister, published a guide book encouraging public communicators to adopt language “without gender stereotypes”. This year, the first textbook using gender-inclusive writing (aimed at 8-year-olds) stirred up a hot debate.

The new style would have people refer to a group of students, for example, as “étudiant.e.s” or “étudiant-e-s” to allow for a diversity of genders. Some of the suggested formulations are admittedly clunky. To refer to a group of producers, for example, one might write “producteur.trice.s” or “product.eur.rice.s” (to represent the masculine producteur and female productrice).

Essentially, the Académie Française says that this is just making things too complicated.

“We find it hard to identify the desired objective and how to overcome the practical obstacles of writing and reading – both visually and out loud – and pronunciation,” the Académie Française wrote in its statement. “This will increase the burden for teachers and even more so for readers.”

Françoise Vouillot, president of the HCE's “Fight Against Stereotypes” commission, says that the detractors of this movement are blowing things out of proportion.

“Our guide is for public communication and for public institutions; we are not talking about literature here,” Vouillot says. “We also want to emphasise that our guide is for written communication. We never said people have to start talking like this.”

Eliane Viennot, a professor of literature at Jean-Monnet University in Saint-Etienne and author of the book “No, the masculine doesn’t prevail over the feminine” ("Non le masculin ne l’emporte pas sur le féminin!"), says that it’s normal for things to be a bit confusing at this stage, because the new forms of language are still evolving

“Sure, we are still working things out in terms of writing,” Viennot says. “With time, things will become more standardised.”

Language and culture

Vouillot of the HCE believes that embedded misogyny or gender biases are the real reasons why people are opposed to these changes.

“I mean, the Académie Française is not exactly a model for inclusion,” Vouillot says.

The Académie was founded in 1635 but didn’t have a single female member until 1980. Among the 729 members throughout its history, only eight have been women.

“They are extremely conservative,” says Viennot, who has also written a book on the history of the debate over the “feminisation” of nouns within the Académie Française.

Both Vouillot and Viennot think that developing more gender-inclusive writing is an extremely important way to change society.

“Language isn’t just a way of communicating, it expresses how we see the world and transmits our vision of society,” Vouillot says.

She thinks that the dominance of the masculine in the French language could have an effect on how women perceive themselves.

“One semester, I taught a university class with 65 students, 64 of whom were women,” Vouillot. “But the grammatical rule dictates that, because there’s one male student, I have to address the group using the masculine. It’s as if I am telling the girls that all 64 of them are less important than that one boy.”

Both Viennot and Vouillot say that girls might also be put off entering professions usually referred to in the masculine.

“If you ask people to list their favorite écrivains [writers], they will only mention male authors,” Viennot says. “It’s not until you ask them to list their favourite écrivains and écrivaines that they think of women.”

For both of these women, changing the language is about changing mindsets.

“We want to use language to make women more visible,” Vouillot says.

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