Gender inclusive writing: debates and backlash in France

Gender inclusive writing: debates and backlash in France

By Lindsey Stevenson

In September of 2017 Hatier published the first ever textbook written entirely using gender inclusive language, reigniting a controversy which has been present in French society since the 1980s. While certain organisations, linguists and feminists have promoted the use of gender inclusive writing, many strong voices of opposition exist, including the prestigious Académie française, La Manif Pour Tous, a conservative organisation campaigning against ‘gender theory’ and marriage equality, and various politicians. The debate between these groups over the last several years has been a constant feature of media and public consciousness, creating a frenzy of controversy surrounding these inclusive reforms.

Gender inclusive writing in French consists of a group of strategies which target both nouns themselves and agreement rules, mostly working to increase the visibility of the feminine in the language. The first forms of inclusive writing involved feminising nouns of occupation and titles, which (for many prestigious professions) only existed in their masculine form, or had semantically asymmetrical feminine forms. For example, the semantic pair ‘juge’ and ‘jugesse’ traditionally means ‘judge’ and ‘judge’s wife’! This reform was introduced to the language by feminists in the 1980s, and is now in standard use throughout France. The 2010s saw a greater adoption of inclusive grammar strategies in academia and education. For example in 2017, 317 teachers throughout France signed a petition to change teaching around grammar which prioritised the masculine as the generic, or as the default in mixed-gender situations. In 2021, the non-binary pronouns ‘iel’ and ‘iels’ were added to Le Robert dictionary, legitimising them for the first time. Écriture inclusive has been adopted institutionally in other francophone communities, such as Quebec, Switzerland and Belgium. However, in France, alongside the frenzy of media coverage and social media outrage from politicians and the Académie française, forms of écriture inclusive have been banned in official government proceedings and banned in educational settings. Additionally, the Académie française only accepted the use of feminised nouns in 2019, twenty years after they were first introduced. In fact, the Académie française has stated that écriture inclusive represents a “mortal peril” for the French language, demonstrating the level of concern and backlash towards écriture inclusive held by French institutions.

All of which raises the question: why is écriture inclusive such a controversial topic in France? My honours thesis explores this question through a study of the attitudes towards écriture inclusive which are represented in French news media, and the ideological influences which underpin these attitudes. Through an Appraisal analysis of articles from Le Figaro, a right wing French newspaper, and Libération, which is situated to the left of the political spectrum, attitudes have been revealed which seem to constitute the final manifestations of the ideologies of language and gender which permeate French society. Hopefully, tracing attitudes back to their ideological source might help us to understand the root causes of controversy and debates surrounding écriture inclusive.

Lindsey Stevenson
Lindsey Stevenson is an Honours student at the University of Sydney, where she is completing a joint thesis in Linguistics and French. Her interests lie in the philosophy of linguistics in English and French. 
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