‘Françaises, Français’: Could the French language be less sexist?

Spot the woman: The Académie française, France's august language watchdog, has welcomed just 10 women since its inception in 1635.
Spot the woman: The Académie française, France's august language watchdog, has welcomed just 10 women since its inception in 1635. © Jean-Loup Gautreau, AFP

Efforts to address entrenched gender bias in the French language ran into familiar resistance this week as lawmakers called for a ban on “gender-neutral” writing. But experts say the rearguard action is neither backed up by history nor suited to present times.

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After stirring heated debates about “Islamo-leftism” in universities and meat-free meals in school canteens, France’s ruling party has fallen back on another cause célèbre of the conservative camp: defending a status quo in the French language that is unmistakably sexist.

According to French grammar rules, all pronouns, nouns and adjectives carry the gender of the object or person they refer to. There is no gender-neutral pronoun like “they” and the masculine form is considered dominant in the plural: Thus, 10 French women make up a group of Françaises; but add just one male and they become Français.

Until recently, many job titles didn’t even have a feminine form, at least not for the Académie française, the overwhelmingly male language watchdog, which only dropped its insistence on calling female presidents “Madame le président” two years ago.

Feminists have long argued that this glaring bias puts women at a disadvantage, bolstering gender-based inequalities in other fields too. But their decades-long push to make the language more gender-neutral has been fiercely resisted at every step.

On Wednesday, lawmakers from the ruling LREM party and the opposition Les Républicains tabled a bill calling for a ban on the use of gender-neutral text – known as “inclusive writing” – among government officials and civil servants.

The move comes three years after a government memo warned ministers against using écriture inclusive (inclusive writing), which the Académie française had previously bashed as an “aberration” that places the language in “mortal danger”.

Defending his proposed bill, LREM lawmaker François Jolivet lamented a form of linguistic “activism” that “in no way advances the rightful cause” of gender equality. Instead, he claimed gender-neutral writing would only make the language harder to learn. 

Jolivet was soon guilty of the very sin he preached against, writing on Twitter that he had no trouble with the traditional greeting phrase “Chères collègues, chers collègues” – which, as critics were quick to point out, is itself a form of inclusive language.

Français·es

Eliane Viennot, a historian and literature professor at Jean-Monnet University in Saint-Étienne, said the lawmaker’s contradiction was indicative of an often ill-informed debate, stirred in large part by what she described as “conservatives clinging to a bastion of male dominance”.

“We’re fed this idea that language rules are sacred and that feminists are undermining our culture,” Viennot said in an interview with FRANCE 24. “It’s the kind of talk that stirs emotional responses but simply doesn’t withstand scrutiny.”

As Viennot points out, General Charles de Gaulle, the former president and Resistance hero so often invoked by French conservatives, was himself an unlikely champion of inclusive writing, famously addressing the public with his trademark, “Françaises, Français”. 

The first French president to be elected by universal suffrage, De Gaulle had every reason to acknowledge his female voters. For doing so, he was frequently scolded by members of the Académie, who stressed that he need only say “Français” to include both women and men.

Rejecting the Académie’s conservatism, advocates of inclusive writing propose using both words, as De Gaulle did, or seeking gender-neutral alternatives, such as “la population française”. Another option is to use median points or “middots” – a floating full stop positioned mid-word – to include both gendered forms, as in Français·es.

Unsurprisingly, it is the latter option that has raised the most eyebrows, with critics rounding on a grammatical ploy deemed “ugly”, “ridiculous” and even “barbaric”. 

Despite the fuss, Viennot points out that similar contractions have long been commonplace in French paperwork, most notably identity cards, which use the form “Né(e)” – for born – to introduce one’s date of birth.

“Critics obsess over an abbreviation – the median point – which feminists didn’t even invent,” she argued. “The feminist contribution is to have looked for a more appropriate sign, since the use of parentheses conveys a lesser degree of importance.”

Erasing women

Viennot says median points offer a suitable alternative to parentheses: derived from ancient Greek, they carry no particular connotation in French. She notes that other aspects of inclusive writing that are now broadly accepted were once similarly divisive. 

In the 1980s, there was fierce opposition to attempts to feminise certain professions, for instance by saying “la chirurgienne” (the surgeon) instead of “le chirurgien”. As late as 2014, a conservative lawmaker caused a row in parliament by refusing to address his female colleague in the feminine form. True to form, the Académie was the last to capitulate, in 2019, more than three decades later.

“Today, feminised job titles are broadly accepted, though there are still people who find they cannot stomach some terms,” said Viennot. In accepting the change, the Académie was merely agreeing to restore the language spoken centuries ago, she argued, noting that much of the inclusive writing deemed so bizarre today existed in early modern times. 

Thus, it was not uncommon in the 14th century for adjectives and participles to agree with feminine nouns rather than masculine ones if the former were nearest. One could write “les garçons et les filles sont heureuses” (the boys and girls are happy), as opposed to the masculine “heureux” that is now taught in schools.

“From the 17th century onwards, such practises were gradually phased out as masculine forms became mandatory,” Viennot explained. “Feminine terms like ‘doctoresse’ and ‘philosopheuse’ were banned as the professions became the sole preserve of men.”

>> ‘A woman’: Wikipedia page records trials and achievements of invisible women

In lieu of feminine forms, the Académie ruled that the masculine would, somehow, count as neutral too – a practice its 736 members, including a grand total of 10 women, have defended ever since.

iel

In a 2017 memo to cabinet colleagues, former prime minister Édouard Philippe argued that the “masculine [form] is a neutral form which should be used for terms liable to apply to women”.

But “neutral” it is not. In fact, numerous studies have shown that, in its present form, the French language only increases gender-based inequalities. 

Taking stock of recent research in an article published on The Conversation, a group of French linguists cited ample evidence of women being discouraged by job offers that use masculine forms only. Conversely, the use of inclusive writing is proven to increase women’s confidence to apply for jobs or pursue studies in a given field.

The same article suggested there is no evidence to back claims of an adverse effect on readers’ ability to comprehend texts that use inclusive writing, though the authors called for more studies on the specific use of median points.

Gwenaëlle Perrier, a researcher at the University of Paris 13 who specialises in politics, language and gender, says schoolchildren are generally comfortable with basic forms of inclusive writing, such as feminised nouns. She has also found university students to be receptive to certain neologisms that have been widely ridiculed, such as the term “iel” (a contraction of the French terms for “he” and “she”). 

“New words often surprise and shock, as did the feminised forms of job titles only a few decades ago,” she said in an interview with FRANCE 24. “But evidence shows that words and other habits are readily adopted when they are useful and make sense.”

If critics of inclusive writing were really interested in debating pedagogical issues, Perrier argued, they would address some of the more impenetrable – and frankly pointless – rules of French grammar, instead of mocking attempts to ensure language is more in step with society.

In fact, inclusive writing is in many ways easier and more logical than many existing rules, she pointed out, adding: “It certainly makes more sense to pupils than the predominance of masculine.”

The surgeon’s riddle

The spread of words like “iel” and “toustes” (a contraction of the masculine and feminine terms for “all”) signals a new horizon in inclusive writing, one that goes beyond the original endeavour to feminise the French language. 

“Such words serve both a political purpose, opening to transgender and non-binary representations, and a practical one, for instance using neutral terms when a person’s identity is not known,” said Perrier. 

Just how far gender-neutral writing should go to address these concerns, and which innovations should be adopted, are the subject of intense debate among proponents of inclusive writing – a debate welcomed by many linguists in France.

The debate touches on a range of practical aspects, including whether feminine and masculine forms should have a particular order – for instance, writing “étudiantes, étudiants” (students) but “Français, Françaises” based on alphabetical order rather than the patronising gallantry adopted by De Gaulle – or be ordered at random.

Perrier says she is not surprised to hear critics argue that other struggles should be prioritised, such as the fight against gender-based violence and economic inequalities. However, she counters, “the performative power of language no longer needs proving.” 

She pointed to an often cited survey, in which students toured the city of Lyon asking members of the public to solve the following riddle: “A man is killed in a car accident and his injured son is taken to hospital. Upon entering the emergency room, the hospital’s best surgeon gasps and exclaims, ‘I cannot treat my own son’. How is this possible?”

Puzzled bystanders offered one plausible answer, that the injured son had two fathers. Some suggested “le chirurgien” might be a stepfather or even the mother’s lover. Schooled, like previous generations, on the grammatical premise that “the masculine takes precedence”, few came up with the most obvious answer – that the surgeon was the mother.

 

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