The fight to make the French language kinder to women took steps forward, and back, this week. Warning that the well-being of France and its future are at stake, the government banned the use in schools of a method increasingly used by some French speakers to make the language more inclusive by feminizing some words.
The education minister's decree specifically targets what is arguably the most contested and politicized letter in the French language — 'e'. Simply put, 'e' is the language’s feminine letter, used in feminine nouns and their adjectives and, sometimes, when conjugating verbs.
But proponents of women's rights are also increasingly adding 'e' to words that normally wouldn't have included that letter, in a conscious and divisive effort to make women more visible.
Take for example, the generic French word for leaders — “dirigeants”. For some, that masculine spelling suggests that they are generally men and makes women leaders invisible, because it lacks a feminine 'e' toward the end. For proponents of inclusive writing, a more gender-equal spelling is “dirigeant·es", inserting the extra 'e', preceded by a middle dot, to make clear that leaders can be of both sexes.
Likewise, they might write “les élu·es” instead of the generic masculine “élus" for the holders of elected office, again to highlight that women are elected, too. Or, they might use “les idiot·es", instead of the usual generic masculine “les idiots,” to acknowledge that stupidity isn't the exclusive preserve of men.
Proponents and opponents sometimes split down political lines. France's conservative Republicans party uses “élus", while the left-wing France Unbowed tends toward ” élu · es".
“It's a fight to make women visible in the language,” said Laurence Rossignol, a Socialist senator who uses the feminizing extra “·e.” She said its opponents “are the same activists, who were against marriage for people of the same sex, medically assisted reproduction, and longer abortion windows. It's the new banner under which reactionaries are gathering."
But for the government of centrist President Emmanuel Macron, the use of "·e” threatens the very fabric of France. Speaking in a Senate debate on the issue on Thursday, Nathalie Elimas, a deputy education minister, said inclusive writing “is a danger for our country" and will “sound the death knell for the use of French in the world.”
By challenging traditional norms of French usage, inclusive writing makes the language harder to learn, penalizing pupils with learning difficulties, argued the minister. “It dislocates words, breaks them into two," she said. “With the spread of inclusive writing, the English language — already quasi-hegemonic across the world — would certainly and perhaps forever defeat the French language.”
Meanwhile, arguments over gender-inclusive language are raging elsewhere in Europe, too. A fault-line among German speakers has been how to make nouns reflect both genders. The German word for athletes, for example, could be written as “Sportler(asterisk)innen” to show that it includes both men and women, as opposed to the more usual, generic masculine “Sportler.” For critics, the addition of the feminine “innen” at the end — sometimes with the help of an asterisk, capital letter or underscore — is plain ugly.
Italy has seen sporadic debate over neutralizing gendered titles for public officials, or making them feminine when they normally would remain masculine, such as “ministra” instead of “ministro” for women Cabinet members. Rome Mayor Virginia Raggi prefers to be called “sindaca” rather than “sindaco.”
Inclusive language has also been a long battle for feminists and, more recently, of LGTBQ groups in Spain, although there is no consensus on how to make progress. Politics also play into the issue there. Members of the far-right Vox party have insisted on sticking with the traditional “presidente” when referring to Spain’s four deputy prime ministers, all of them women, rather than opting for the more progressive “presidenta,” even though the Royal Academy of the Spanish Language has accepted usage of that feminine noun.
The French Education Ministry circular that banished the “·e" formula from schools did, however, accept other more inclusive changes in language that highlight women.
They include systematically feminizing job titles for women like “présidente,” instead of "président," or ambassadrice" rather than "ambassadeur" for women ambassadors. It also encouraged the simultaneous use of both masculine and feminine forms to emphasize that roles are filled by both sexes. So a job posting in a school, for example, should say that it will go to “le candidat ou la candidate” — man or woman — who is best qualified to fill it.
Raphael Haddad, the author of a French-language guide on inclusive writing, said that section of the ministry circular represented progress for the cause of women in French. “It's a huge step forward, disguised as a ban,” he said. “What's happening to the France language is the same thing that happened in the United States, with ‘chairman’ replaced by ‘chairperson,’ (and) ‘’fireman' by ‘firefighter.’"