Academic journal article European Journal of Language Policy

The Loi Toubon and EU Law: A Happy or a Mismatched Couple?

Academic journal article European Journal of Language Policy

The Loi Toubon and EU Law: A Happy or a Mismatched Couple?

Article excerpt


More than 20 years ago, the law on the use of the French language was passed. It is commonly referred to as the Toubon law, after the Minister of Culture at the time.1 The law regulates language use in various fields of the public and private domain in France.

Fierce criticism and derision, particularly in the British and American press and blogs, has been its part ever since. Among the nicer things, it has been called a stupid, short-sighted, wrong-minded and ludicrous piece of legislation. On top of that, it is also accused of violating linguistic freedom as well as EU law.2 By contrast, support from French citizens is, allegedly, overwhelming: 85% are in favour of the law (North 2015: 1).

It should be made clear from the outset that this contribution does not aim at providing a comprehensive study on the issue of language regulation in France. First and foremost, this is a legal analysis. I do not deal with linguistic aspects such as the influence of the Toubon law on the French language (the fight against "franglais" for instance). Another topic that falls outside the ambit of this article is the interaction between the Toubon law and the minority languages in France.

Rather, my aim is to focus on one core question: is the Toubon law as it stands compliant with EU law? It seems an appropriate time to assess the law. The 2015 report of the general delegation for the French language (Ministère de la Culture 2015) was made available as of mid-January 2016.

In a first part of the present contribution the historical and legal context of French language law will be sketched. This is important to fully understand the Toubon law, which is a logical continuation of French language law and policy since the early 16th century. Thereafter, I shall explore the provisions of the law itself, assessing compliance with EU law. A distinction must be made between the public and the private domain, as national jurisdiction to regulate language matters is greater in the former than in the latter field.

The origins of French language law

France has the oldest explicit language policy of all EU Member States (Haarmann 1973: 73). From the 16th century onwards, the French kings used language as a tool to enhance central power and national unity (Wright 2007: 93; Capotorti 1991: 308). As early as 1510, King Louis XII prohibited the use of Latin in criminal trials and investigations, making the language of the people, the vulgaire langage du pays, compulsory in such proceedings (De Varennes 1996: 11). This law was completed in 1539, when King François I, through the Ordonnance de Villers-Cotterêt sur le Fait de la Justice, made French the official legal language on French territory for all judgments, proceedings, registers, inquiries, contracts, wills and other acts (Mouthaan 2007: 455; Reichelt 2006: 2). As a clear sign of continuity in French language law: more than 400 years later, in 1986, the Cour de Cassation held that the Ordonnance was still in force.3

An important tool with regard to language policy has clearly proved to be the Académie française, set up in 1635 by Cardinal Richelieu, not only standardizing the language but more relevant for the issue at hand, rendering the State responsible for linguistic matters (Darras 2001: 38).

The French revolutionaries continued along the same path. In 1794, Bertrand Barère de Vieuzac in his Rapport du Comité de salut public sur les idiomes, and Abbé Henri Grégoire, the linguistic ideologist of the French Revolution, in his essay Sur la nécessité et les moyens d'anéantir les patois et d'universaliser la langue française, argued against the use of regional languages (Lüdi 2012: 214). The generalization of the French language was felt to be necessary because local vernaculars such as Basque, Breton and Occitan had, in practice, despite the language policy of the French kings, been maintained in local administration until the advent of the revolution (De Varennes 1996: 11). …

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