A French MP has tabled a bill to punish discrimination against regional accents – dubbed “glottophobia” – after one of the country’s highest-profile politicians mocked a journalist’s southern intonation.
The proposal came a day after Jean-Luc Mélenchon, leader of the far-left France Insoumise (France Unbowed) movement and a former presidential candidate, was caught on camera rudely haranguing a journalist with a southern accent who asked him a question outside parliament.
French police on Tuesday raided the Leftist’s party headquarters after prosecutors opened an inquiry into suspected campaign financing violations and “fake jobs” for EU parliament assistants. He was quizzed for five hours on Thursday over the probes.
Asked for a comment from a journalist from the southwestern city of Toulouse, where silent vowels are more “sung” than further North, a clearly irked Mr Mélenchon hit back mockingly: “Qu’esseuh-que ça veut direuh ?” (the French equivalent of saying:” Whatadoesa thata mean?).
“Can someone ask me a question in French? And (make it) a bit more understandable…,” the fiery revolutionary asked reporters in the video clip, widely circulated on social media.
It prompted an angry response from Parisian MP Laetitia Avia.
“Do we speak French any the less with an accent. Must one suffer humiliation if one doesn’t speak standard French? Because our accents are our identity, I am tabling a bill to recognise glottophobia as a source of discrimination,” Ms Avia tweeted.
Regional accents – whether they be from the south, the Parisian suburbs or up North where the accent is called Ch’ti – are “an integral part of many French people’s identity”, said the MP, who is from President Emmanuel Macron’s Republic on the Move party.
She was backed by Jean-Luc Moudenc, mayor of Toulouse, who tweeted: “In Toulouse, we speak French too…but with the sun in our voice. It’s a marker of our identity, a source of pride and I hope many of us will remind (Mr Mélenchon) of that.”
The word “glottophobia” was reportedly popularised by sociologist Philippe Blanchet of Rennes University, who pointed out that unliked in some other countries, “French law against discrimination…doesn’t mention linguistic discrimination”.
Méderic Gasquet-Cyrus, sociologist at Aix-en-Provence University, said: “Imagine if (Mr Mélenchon) had chosen to imitate a North Africa, African or Asian accent. What would people say? That it’s racist.”
Unlike in the UK, French media, notably news media, has few high-profile figures with strong regional accents.
Maxime Gil, a TV journalism graduate from the southwestern town of Béziers, told BFMTV that his teachers advised him to “absolutely erase my accent” or face being taken on in Paris only to commentate rugby – which harks from that region.
One of the notable exceptions is radio political anchorman Jean-Michel Aphatie, who has a thick southern accent. In a tweet, he said: “To mock an accent is discrimination and verging on racism. You can’t say you love France and mock accents.”
He also pointed out that Mr Mélenchon is MP in Marseille, the southern port whose inhabitants have a particularly thick drawl.
But if southerners have it bad, “glottophobia” is even worse for northerners, according to Philippe Boula de Mareüil, linguistics researcher and author of Where Do Regional Accents Come From?
While southern accents were mocked by Parisians as lacking “seriousness” at least they were seen as “pretty and evoking the sun”.
Not so for northerners, whose style of speech “you find neither among star journalists, nor big bosses, nor politicians.
“People from around there try even harder to mask their accent,” he said.
Seen as well-nigh incomprehensible to outsiders, the northern accent was the subject of 2008 film, Bienvenue chez les Ch’tis (Welcome to the Sticks), the biggest homegrown box office hit of all time.
The comedy charts the travails of a man born and raised on France’s southern coast who is exiled to the northern Pas de Calais and can barely understand a thing.
One British critic wrote: “Imagine a parallel exercise in UK movie-making. A Berkshire postmaster migrates to Tyneside to find the Geordies booze-sodden, half-witted savages who are nonetheless endowed with hearts of gold.
“Well, you can’t imagine it, can you?”