France is to sign and ratify the Council of Europe's charter supporting regional languages, prime minister Lionel Jospin announced in a move that will reinforce pupils' rights to bilingual education.
The charter has so far been signed by 18 countries and ratified by eight of them - Norway, Finland, Hungary, the Netherlands, Croatia, Lichtenstein, Switzerland and, most recently, Germany.
Minority languages or dialects spoken in parts of France include Alsatian, Basque, Breton, Catalan, Corsican, Flemish and Occitan. While the education ministry lays down guidelines , in practice provision is patchy. In 1996-97, 335,000 pupils - about 2 per cent of the school population - studied local languages.
A report, submitted in July to Jospin by Bernard Poignant, the mayor of Quimper in Britanny, recommended ratifying the charter. It called on the education ministry to support bilingual teaching and guarantee its continuation in addition to the usual foreign languages taught.
The state must provide sufficient qualified teachers, it said, and the privately-run schools should be given a more official status or merged into the public system. Regions' responsibilities should be defined in contracts between national and regional government.
But, with its main aim to protect cultural heritage, the charter is flexible and member states may choose to adopt any 35 of its 94 articles.
Alain Chenard, president of the Council of Europe's Congress of Local and Regional Authorities, said: "This does not entail a retreat into regional or ethnic identities but rather recognition of the diversity which is one of Europe's great assets, while such recognition will also bring benefits for the French language."