Full stops in words? Non merci, says French education ministry in ban on gender-inclusive language

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French President Emmanuel Macron talks with a pupil while visiting a school in Melun, south of Paris - Thibault Camus /AP
French President Emmanuel Macron talks with a pupil while visiting a school in Melun, south of Paris - Thibault Camus /AP

France’s education ministry has banned the use of gender-inclusive words in classrooms, saying they "harm" learning and risk cementing the status of English as the world’s dominant language.

The decree sent to schools across the country took specific aim at the practice of introducing full stops into the middle of words to denote both masculine and feminine endings, such as turning “amis” (friends) into “ami.e.s” - a so-called 'midpoint'.

In French grammar, nouns reflect the gender of the object to which they are referring and male dominates female in mixed settings - so a group of friends with nine women and one man would nevertheless be termed with the masculine ‘amis’.

Activists have long pushed for textbooks to add an ‘e’ to feminise certain words, making them more inclusive. In their preferred teaching materials, “élus”, French for elected officials, becomes “élu.e.s”, for example.

But in the decree published last week by the Education Ministry, two members of the Académie francaise, the 400-year-old institution which guards the French language, banned the use of midpoints in schools, saying they are “harmful to the practice and understanding of the French language.”

In its defense of the ban, France’s Education Ministry said spelling out words with midpoints was confusing.

“It dislocates words, breaks them into two,” said Nathalie Elimas, the State Secretary for Priority Education. “With the spread of inclusive writing, the English language - already quasi-hegemonic across the world - would certainly and perhaps forever defeat the French language.”

In an interview with the French newspaper Le Journal du Dimanche, France's Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer said the use of midpoints also put people with learning disabilities, such as dyslexia, at a disadvantage.

“Putting dots in the middle of words presents a barrier when it comes to teaching the [French] language,” Mr Blanquer said, arguing it was harder for students to read words with midpoints out loud.

The SUD Education Union, one of the largest teaching unions, called for educators to ignore the Ministry’s decree, and demanded that Blanquer “stop trying to impose his backwardness on the education community.”

Some concessions were made to proponents of inclusive language. The decree calls for the feminisation of job titles for women, such as using “présidente” instead of “président” when referring to a female leader.

Most job titles in French are masculine and linguists have found evidence of women being discouraged from applying to roles with exclusively male titles.

The decree also encourages the use of femine and masculine options when posting a school job announcement - for example “le candidat or la candidate,” to make it clear the role is open to both men and women.

French linguistics has been dominated by a war between the ‘old guard’ who want to preserve traditions and Left-wing groups saying the language needs to be lifted from its ‘sexist’ roots.

President Emmanuel Macron’s administration has taken aim at ‘woke’ university culture in an attempt to prevent voters deserting him for hard-Right Marine le Pen in next year’s election.

The debate over inclusivity in the French language also sparked headlines in February, when 60 MPs proposed a new law that would ban public servants from using gender inclusive words in their work.

“The advent of inclusive writing makes the learning of the French language harder, since it creates a gap between the spoken language and the written language,” the MPs, a mix of centrists from President Emmanuel Macron’s party and the conservative Les Republicains, wrote in the proposal.

In the fall of 2017, then Prime Minister Edouard Philippe also banned the use of inclusive words amongst cabinet colleagues, stating “the masculine [form] is a neutral form which should be used for terms liable to apply to women.”

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