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Why is the French government so against gender-inclusive language?

A French deputy education minister called it “the death knell for the use of French in the world.”

Why is the French government so against gender-inclusive language?
Deputy education minister, Nathalie Elimas is pictured during a visit at the Francoise Heritier elementary school in Toulouse, southwestern France, on September 1, 2020. [Photo: Lionel Bonaventure/AFP via Getty Images]
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Imagine if the U.S. government came out against singular “they” pronouns. That’s what happening in France this month, where the ministry of education has banned schools from using a more inclusive type of language that feminizes some words.

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In French, nouns, verbs, and adjectives have male or female forms, often signaled by the letter “e” at the end of the word. Examples:

  • les dirigeants / dirigeantes (leaders)
  • les élus / élues (elected officials)
  • les idiots /idiotes (idiots)

Some writers increasingly add “e” to remind readers that these roles can be female or male. Not surprisingly, left-leaning groups are more likely to add it under the logic that it makes women more visible in the language.

This has not gone down well in a country with a 386-year-old Académie Française, in which 40 immortels oversee any changes to the French language. The Ministry of Education has released official guidance on the matter, banning “e,” though encouraging some job roles to be presented in both male and female form, such as in a job posting, which might say “le candidat ou la candidate.” On Thursday, Nathalie Elimas, a deputy education minister told the French Senate that this inclusive writing “is a danger for our country” and “the death knell for the use of French in the world.” She also warned that the “e” will make the language more difficult to learn, penalizing students with learning challenges. “It dislocates words, breaks them into two,” she said.

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France is far from alone in facing the challenges of incorporating gender inclusivity into language. Terms for elected officials are at the forefront, such as presidente/presidenta in Spanish, or ministro/ministra in Italian. Across Western countries, both feminists and LGBT groups have long pushed for language that not just acknowledges the existence of women and nonbinary groups, but fully represents and accommodates them. Spain, Italy, and Germany have also faced similar vernacular upheaval: A recent article in The Economist was titled “The hopeless struggle to make German gender-neutral.”