Jun 15, 2015

France to Ratify European Charter on Regional and Minority Languages?

French President François Hollande is trying to get the French Parliament to authorize the ratification of the European Charter on Regional and Minority Languages (RMLs). The Charter was signed by France in 1999, but was then considered unconstitutional by the Constitutional Council and consequently never ratified. During the 2012 presidential election, Mr Hollande promised that in case of victory he would submit this issue to the Parliament. 

The French newspaper "Le Télégramme" recently revealed a letter sent on 1 June 2015 by French President François Hollande to the President of France’s Commission on Constitutional laws, legislation and general administration of the Republic, Mr Jean-Jacques Urvoas, in which the President stated that he would submit the question of the ratification of the European Charter on Regional and Minority Languages (RMLs) to the French Parliament. This was one of the 60 promises made by Mr Hollande during his 2012 presidential campaign.

The European Charter on RMLs was adopted in 1992 by the Council of Europe, and aims at protecting and promoting RMLs. It defines a series of initiatives that States can undertake in this regard in the fields of education, justice, the administration, the media, culture, social and economic life and transboundary cooperation, among others. It outlines that "the right to use a regional or minority language in private and public life is an inalienable right". This document came into effect on 1 March 1998 and, as of today it has been ratified by 25 States.

France has actually signed the Charter in 1999, but not ratified it. Mr Jacques Chirac, French President at the time, seized the Constitutional Council in order to figure out whether a modification of the Constitution was necessary for this Charter to be ratified. The Council declared that some aspects of the Charter were contrary to the French Constitution. According to the Council, by recognizing specific rights to particular groups, the Charter disrupted the principle of equality before the law and was contrary to the unity of the French people. The clauses encouraging the use of regional languages in public life were also considered contrary to the constitutional rule according to which the Republic’s language is French. The process of ratification was thus interrupted.

Very recently, François Hollande asked the Minister of Justice, Ms Christiane Taubira, to prepare a proposition for a constitutional amendment, making it possible for France to ratify the Charter. If this process works out and if the three fifths of the French Congress vote in favour, an additional article will be added to the French Constitution, stating that France recognizes the European Charter on RMLs, but that this Convention will not challenge article 2 of the Constitution, which recognizes that French is the official language of the Republic.

As a consequence, some observers consider that the ratification of the Charter will be symbolically important, but will have no real effect in practice, as  French will remain the language used by the administration. However, the Charter will give legal backing to initiatives that already exist in practice, such as bilingual teaching or media in regional languages. This could make it harder for the State to resist some of the regionalists’ demands. 


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Photo courtesy of L’Express.