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Explained: Why France may soon pass a law banning discrimination on the basis of accents

If passed, the new law will make linguistic discrimination a criminal offence along with sexism, racism and other forms of outlawed bigotry.

By: Explained Desk | Vasco | Updated: November 30, 2020 11:49:19 am
French Prime Minister Jean Castex has reportedly faced discrimination for his south-west twang. (AP)

France’s national assembly has taken the first steps towards approving a law that would ban discrimination against people with pronounced regional accents across the country.

On Thursday, a new bill banning accent-based discrimination, or ‘la glottophobie’, was approved with 98 votes against three, and spurred a lively debate in the lower house of the French parliament. If passed, the new law will make linguistic discrimination a criminal offence along with sexism, racism and other forms of outlawed bigotry.

Sharing their own personal experiences, several MPs pointed out that discrimination against people with strong regional accents was rampant in society, particularly at the workplace, and described it as a “form of racism”.

Even Prime Minister Jean Castex has reportedly faced discrimination for his south-west twang. At the time of his appointment, some sections of the local media started to call him “a bit rugby” — referring to the fact that a majority of France’s rugby commentators also belong to the south-west region.

What led to the drafting of the bill?

In 2018, Laetitia Avia, a member of President Emmanuel Macron’s ruling party, announced that she was proposing a bill that would outlaw the mockery of regional accents. She did so after a controversial exchange between far-left leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon and a reporter from a regional French TV channel sparked widespread outrage.

When the female journalist from Toulouse in southwest France asked Mélenchon about an anti-corruption investigation of his political party, the leader mimicked her accent and told her she was “talking nonsense”. In a video, which has been heavily shared on social media and news networks since then, he is heard saying, “Has anyone got a question in more or less comprehensible French?”

The politician was widely condemned both online and offline and a group from Macron’s La Republique en Marche, led by Avia, proposed the new legislation. This was also when the term ‘glottophobia’ or ‘la glottophobie’ was coined by a French linguist to describe a specific form of discrimination based on the tone or intonation associated with an accent. 📣 Express Explained is now on Telegram

What were the arguments for and against the bill?

In an animated parliamentary session, several MPs shared why they believed the bill was a step in the right direction. While one MP recounted how she was mocked for her pronounced North African accent, another pointed out that journalists with accents were very often relegated to “rugby columns or weather reports”.

“At a time when ‘visible’ minorities benefit from the legitimate concern of the public authorities, ‘audible’ minorities are the big ones forgotten in the social contract based on equality,” MP Christophe Euzet, one of the bill’s main sponsors, argued.

Many leaders, including Euzet, deliberately spoke in their local accents. Euzet clarified the aim of the bill was to combat discrimination, and this did not include a ban on humour or jokes of any kind.

Among the three people who voted against the legislation was former presidential candidate and head of the Libertés et Territoires party, Jean Lassalle. “I’m not asking for charity. I’m not asking to be protected. I am who I am,” he said in his discernible south-west accent.

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What is the penalty for violating the proposed law?

A person found guilty of discrimination on the basis of regional accents could face a maximum of three years in prison and a fine of up to €45,000 (INR 39.8 lakh).

Is accent-based discrimination a real problem in France?

Accent discrimination is by no means a recent phenomenon in France. Media professionals and politicians who are not from the French mainland often conform to the language spoken in Paris and the Ile-de-France region.

During the parliamentary session earlier this week, Euzet pointed out that out of the 30 million French people who do not speak with a Parisian accent, 17 million have said they were mocked for it, while another 11 million claim to have faced discrimination while interviewing for a job or seeking a promotion, the Independent reported.

According to Ouest-France, a poll conducted in January 2020 showed that around 16 per cent of the French population claim to have been discriminated against during hiring because of their accent.

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