Chirac's 'non' to local dialects;Briefing;International

9th July 1999 at 01:00

The teaching of regional languages, such as Breton and Basque, has received a setback in France. A ruling that the Council of Europe's charter supporting minority languages is unconstitutional and a refusal by President Jacques Chirac to revise the constitution to make it compatible have cast doubt on the government's decision to ratify the charter. The moves have also exposed differences between nationalists and pro-Europeans on both sides of the political divide.

The socialist-led coalition government signed the charter in May, but last month the Constitutional Council judged that it flouted the constitution which states that "France is an indivisible republic" and "The language of the republic is French."

The decision has divided French politics not so much on grounds of left and right, but between nationalist "republicans", who are against ratification, and pro-Europeans who include right-wing free marketeers as well as mainstream left and centre politicians.

After the ruling, the Prime Minister, Lionel Jospin asked Mr Chirac to agree to a revision of the constitution. But, in a political gesture to placate right-wing anti-Europe politicians who have split away from his Gaullist RPR party, the president refused.

Ratification of the charter would reinforce pupils' rights to bilingual education in their regional languages or dialects, which in France include Alsatian, Basque, Breton, Catalan, Corsican, Flemish and Occitan, spoken in Langue d'Oc. While the education ministry already lays down guidelines for teaching them, provision is patchy, often depending on private initiatives such as the schools run by the Diwan movement in Brittany.

The 40-nation Council of Europe adopted the European Charter for Regional or Minority languages in 1992. Since then almost 20 countries have signed it and eight have ratified it. It contains 94 articles, but, with its aim of protecting cultural heritage, it is flexible and states may choose to adopt a minimum of 35 articles.

France approved 39 articles concerning education, culture, the media and administration, but the Constitutional Council ruled against ratification, despite a proviso that French remained the official language.

On a visit to Corsica last week, the education minister, Claude All gre, nevertheless promised to promote teaching of the island's language and culture, and to increase the number of bilingual schools from 11 to 16 in the new school year.

Supporters of the charter are continuing to press for its ratification. As parliament broke up last week for the summer, notice was given of two Bills in its favour to be presented in October by right-wing liberals and socialists. The centre-right UDF party is supporting action at regional level.

In 1996-97, 335,000 pupils - about 2 per cent of the school population - studied local languages.

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