“My homeland is the French language,” author Albert Camus once wrote—and many French people would agree. That’s why any attempt at changing the language is often met with suspicion. So the uproar was almost instantaneous when, this fall, the first-ever school textbook promoting a gender-neutral version of French was released.
It was a victory for a subset of French feminists who had argued that the gendered nature of the language promotes sexist outcomes, and that shifting to a gender-neutral version would improve women’s status in society. Educating the next generation in a gender-inclusive way, they claimed, would yield concrete positive changes, like professional environments that are more welcoming to women.
Many others found this idea outrageous. They complained that implementing it would badly complicate education, and that there’s not enough evidence that changing a language can really change social realities. Clearly in the second camp, the office of Prime Minister Edouard Philippe announced this week that it’s banning the use of gender-neutral French in all official government documents.
In French, pronouns, nouns, and adjectives reflect the gender of the object to which they refer. So, le policier is a policeman; la policière is a policewoman. The language has no neutral grammatical gender. And there are many nouns (including those referring to professions) that don’t have feminine versions. So, a male minister is le ministre and a female minister is la ministre. What’s more, French students are taught that “the masculine dominates over the feminine,” meaning that if you have a room full of ten women and just one man, you have to describe the whole group in the masculine.