Sep 20, 2018

Savoisians’ Enduring Commitment for Minority Rights Recognition and Protection

While the UNPO’s Extraordinary General Assembly was recently held in the heart of the mountainous reefs of Savoy, the preservation of the Savoisian culture, politics and language has become of great importance. Facing persistent marginalisation throughout French monarchical and republican history, Savoisians’ requests for recognition now seek to find echoes on the European and international political scenes. In this time of a global ethics promoting human rights, the UNPO supports the claims of the people of Savoy in regards with the protection of minority rights in France and worldwide.

La version française de l'article "Les Savoisiens Continuent d’Agir pour la Reconnaissance des Droits des Minorités" est disponible en format PDF.  

On 14 and 15 September 2018, UNPO’s Extraordinary General Assembly took place in the Alpine mountains, in the city of Saint-Gervais Mont-Blanc. Far from being coincidental, the choice of such a location reflects the importance of Savoisians’ claims for the recognition and protection of the rights of minorities throughout the last decades. While Savoy has been a member of UNPO since 28 June 2014, its demands and actions for minority rights must be understood in the light of the French and global contemporary context.

Heir to the former Duchy of Savoy and located in the Alpine region, Savoy has a troubled history which left its current inhabitants with a rich but threatened cultural, gastronomic, architectural and linguistic legacy. While national political discourses uphold – almost unanimously – the French Revolution of 1789 as the time when human rights were born, the history of Savoy reveals a more nuanced narrative. Indeed, between 1792 and 1815, revolutionary forces began the occupation of Savoy by arbitrarily renaming it as the Mont Blanc department, splitting it in two through the creation of the department of Léman, therebyeffectivelyending centuries of self-government. The Second Bonapartist Empire (1852-1870) launched a new wave of political repression against Savoy's autonomy: following the Turin Convention of March 1860, the French imperial regime officially annexed the region to its territory. In 1871, just after the proclamation of the Third Republic, the new President, Adolphe Thiers, sent thousands of soldiers to counter the rising insurgency of Savoisians who demanded a new referendum about the annexation.

While the twentieth century is marked by the birth of minority rights in international law, the French State still refuses to recognise the existence of national minorities within its own territory. In particular, the Government denied the implementation of the 1860 Treaty, by neutralising the north of Savoy and sendingSavoisian citizens into the French battlefields as early as 3 August 1914, where they fought alongside soldiers from the colonies. In 1932, while the Free Zone existing in Savoy was unilaterally suppressed by the French government after WWI, the International Court of Justice in The Hague condemned France to the maintaining of a restricted area around Geneva and Saint Gingolph in a 7 June 1932 ruling. Following the Paris Peace Treaty of 1947 and the moral condemnations associated with the term "annexation" after the two World Wars, the French government reaffirmed the "inclusion of Savoy into France" – “rattachement de la Savoie à la France” – in the 1960s. This desire for administrative and political uniformity – a true seal of the French Republic – would be confirmed by the debates on the regionalization of the French territory and a law passed on 5 July 1972 which created and organized administrative regions.

Therefore, over the last two centuries, the people of Savoy have sought to preserve their political and cultural rights. In particular, the Provisional Government of the State of Savoy has, since May 2012, been the main flag-bearer of such claims. Composed of eight Savoisian organizations, its main mission is to draw national, European and international attention to the case of Savoisians’ political and cultural rights. Indeed, the French Republic remains the only European State which still refuses to ratify the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages (ECRML) and the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities. This political refusal is based on the judicial decisions of the French Constitutional Court, whose judges have repeatedly asserted that the recognition of minority rights would be contrary to the principle of unity and indivisibility proclaimed by Article 1 of the French Constitution.

Despite French Republic’s blindness regarding minorities’ rights to recognition, the people of Savoy refer to international law in order to defend their status as a national minority. Under Article 2(4) of the Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities, organisations defending Savoisian minority’s rights were created, such as the Direction of Savoisian Affairs  - Direction aux Affaires Savoisiennes (DAS) – in August 2014. Despite being protected under French law and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights of the United Nations (UN), the Savoisians’ freedom of association has been compromised and their organizations are frequently threatened with dissolution by French prefecture services. For example, following a peaceful demonstration organized in 2014, Fabrice Dugerdil, Minister of the Interior of the Provisional Government of the State of Savoy, was incarcerated for three months in the prison of Bonneville, where  he was kept in solitary confinement for one month, unable to be visited from his family or his lawyer.

In addition to their demands for civil and political rights, Savoisians have ranked the preservation of their linguistic and cultural heritage as a primary goal. On 7 October 2016, together with Brittany, Savoy supported a bill in the French Parliament to promote the use of regional languages. After UNESCO's findings on the progressive disappearance of more than half of the 6,000 minority languages spoken throughout the world, this proposal aimed at promoting the learning and use of regional linguistics at school and in the media.

However, the French Republic’s refusal to recognize the rights of national minorities living within its borders remains a matter of great concern, since it questions the level of freedom truly enjoyed by individuals belonging to minority peoples. Thus, citizens with Savoy nationality continue to face the rejection by state institutions of their official documents – national identity card, driving license, etc. –during administrative controls or commercial procedures. In such a context, Savoy has regionalised and internationalised its claims to stand up to the French State’s denial.

At the European level, Savoisians’ claims join those of other regional minorities. Since the Scottish referendum in September 2014 and the Catalan elections in October 2017, the political urgency of minority issues has returned to the forefront of the European Union (EU). It is in light of a European political and ethical imperative – that of the recognition and protection of minority rights – that the demands of UNPO members, such as Brittany or Savoy, should be understood. On 25 September 2014, when a representative of Savoy spoke in front of the European Parliament, he pointed out the paradoxes of the EU’s multinational construction in which the application of the "right to decide" should be reinforced.

At the international level, Savoy has actively promoted human rights while raising its voice in UN fora. Looking to underline its political and juridical adhesion to contemporary international values, the Provisional Government of the State of Savoy thus declared its adherence, on 18 September 2013, to the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, the 1963 Vienna Convention on Consular Relations and the 1969 Geneva Convention on Special Missions. Moreover, having signalled its adherence to the UN Charter of 1945 and declared its recognition of the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court (ICC), Savoy has thereby confirmed its commitment to the rule of law. In an address to the 8thForum on Minorities held in Geneva on 24 November 2015, Roland Coste, a member of the DAS, emphasised the urgent duty for France to respect civil and political rights of minorities.

Nonetheless, the action of the representatives of the people of Savoy has not been restricted to the defence of their own rights and legacies. On the contrary, it has been characterised by a broader commitment to minority rights in France and elsewhere. Whether by signing mutual recognition treaties with other minority peoples such as West Papua or by hosting the UNPO General Assembly on its territory, Savoy has repeatedly shown an active commitment to the protection of minority rights and, more broadly, to the respect of human rights worldwide.

Photo courtesy of Manon Ridet @Flickr.