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The Basque language and the 2021 decision of the French Constitutional Council: a short discussion

3 Dec 2021 09:05 | Ihintza Palacin Mariscal

I want to use the opportunity of celebrating the international day of the Basque language to reflect on the recent (legal) events concerning the teaching in Basque in the Northern Basque Country (Iparralde), located in France.

In a country where unity is mistakenly synonym of uniformity, the lesser-used or minority languages are still fighting for their rightful space in education. 2021 can be marked as a year where immersive education in regional1 languages (Basque included) has been a focal point in France. The latest development on the legislation concerning the Basque language was brought this year by the law on the heritage protection of the regional languages and their promotion, known as the Molac law.

In a nutshell, this law sought to strengthen the protection of regional languages, notably in the areas of education and diacritic signs. This would have resulted in the inclusion of immersive schooling in regional languages in the public schooling system (Article 4). This law also aimed at financially supporting the enrolment of children in schools offering the teaching of a regional language when the option was not available in their municipality (Article 6). Finally, another key point was the inclusion of the use of diacritic marks in civil status documents (Article 9).

The French National Assembly adopted the Molac law on the 8th of April 2021, with 247 votes in favour and 76 against, and 19 abstentions. This marked a historic win for the regional languages in France. However, despite this law being adopted, it was challenged before the Constitutional Council, resulting in the decision nº2021-818.

For this short discussion, the key element to take into account is the sanction of Article 4 by the Constitutional Council. In fact, Article 4 of the Molac law amended Article L.321-10 of the Code of Education, concerning the teaching of regional languages, adding a third point that included immersive education. The Constitutional Council poorly motivated the unconstitutionality of Article 4, arguing since immersive schooling is not limited to the teaching of a regional language, but rather uses this language as the “main language of teaching and as the language of communication in the school”, Article 4 of the Molac law breached Article 2 of the Constitution.2 Yet article 4 included immersive schooling alongside other forms of schooling, and mentioned immersive schooling should be performed without hindering “the objective of a good knowledge of French”. In other words, Article 4 added an additional choice to the parents for the schooling of their children and did not impose sending their children to an immersive classroom in a regional language. Once againthe Constitutional Council seems to automatically pair immersive schooling in a regional language with the imposition of a language other than French, hindering the teaching of regional languages.

2021 has shown two things to the Basque-speakers of Iparralde. On the one hand, it marks an achievement with the adoption of the Molac law, yet on the other hand, still in 2021, Basque speakers know there is still a lot to fight for.  Therefore, on this December 3rd, let us remind ourselves of the still precarious situation of the Basque language in Iparralde, but more importantly, let us celebrate the achievements obtained by the perseverance of Basque and regional language speakers, in a quite difficult legal environment towards their language(s).

If you are interested in this issue, this topic (and more), please join us for the discussion of my PhD dissertation in January 2022 hosted by the Oñati Community!

Laster arte!

See you soon!

1 In France, the Basque language is listed as being a “regional language”. The author will use the term “regional language” to be consistent with the French law. However, she does not believe this is the best term to use in France to refer to these languages due to its underlying value judgments, and the delimitation of these languages to “regional matters”.

2 “The language of the Republic shall be French.”

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