Just to minimise confusion (there's plenty to come), the following is not Scottish Review's
word of the month. It is Aitken's word of the day, and the word is iel
. Pronounced 'yell', though not very often. It is, as you see, a small word. But it has stirred up a big fuss here in France.
One MP, François Jolivet of President Macron's République En Marche party, went so far as to call it 'a manifest ideological intrusion which undermines our common language and its influence'. Whatever this might mean, he certainly seems to mean it. It is quite a burden of blame to lay upon two little vowels and a consonant.
The word purports to be a gender-neutral blend of the French third person pronouns, il
) and elle
), and was conceived to accommodate people who do not consider themselves gender-specific. It surfaced officially in November, in the online version of a dictionary, Le Petit Robert
, and is said by some to be in common usage among the young. I must report that, living in a city of 70,000-plus students, I'm not conscious of having heard it used ever, though in fairness most of them spend the day gawping at their phones and saying very little of any nature.
Still, since nouns in French take a gender, and il
) or elle
) can also mean 'it' or 'they', the emergence of iel
might seem set to make life easier for those of us grappling with the language. Trying to get the gender of nouns right is a grammatical chore we could do without. But actually, that's not the case, because sometimes the same word can have different meanings according to gender. Une cave
, for example, means a cellar: un cave
means a numptie. Le chèvre
is goat cheese: la chèvre
is a goat. Le champagne
is a wine, la Champagne
a region. Un ami
is a friend, une amie
a girlfriend. Good luck persuading your partner that those two mean the same.
Of course, the row is not about making life easier for anglophones – get real – but about that most mystical and magisterial concept, le patrimoine
. Like all the most potent French words, this is untranslatable. 'Cultural heritage' comes closest. It means the essential Frenchness of France, and if everyone has a different idea of what that comprises, few are prepared to be caught not defending it to the hilt, especially in language. 'My homeland is the French language,' Albert Camus said.
France even has an grand star chamber of the great and good, the Academie Française, which polices any upstart challenge to the cultural status quo, and which has agonised long and hard over gender specificity in contexts like job titles, such as médecin
) or actrice
. Even when it loosens its gussets a little, which is not often, it encounters robust opposition. A modest move in 2017 towards gender neutrality in the school curriculum prompted an immediate announcement from the then Prime Minister, Ėdouard Philippe, that gender-neutral French would henceforth be banned in all governmental documents.
Little surprise, then, that the proposition of iel
for the national lexicon earned a stiff riposte from the Education Minister, Jean-Michel Blanquer, to the effect that inclusive terminology was not the future of the French language. This Blanquer has form as a traditionalist. He recently announced plans to boost teaching of Latin and Greek. This might sound like reactionary sentimentalism for the sake of it (what else are moribund languages for?) but Blanquer says it will fortify pan-European bonds as a reminder of 'our first federating element'. Or first imperial yoke, some might say.
You may wonder why there is such faff about iel
when uglier neologisms like the Franglais le camping
and le weekend
have been absorbed, albeit grudgingly: or when the President of the Republic, no less, can vow to emmerder
(piss off) anti-vaxxers. The answer is that there is a deeper and much more political agenda at work.
Inclusive language like iel
is seen as the pernicious agent of what some bilious commentators call 'woke' and the rest of us call political correctness. The French call it (neologism alert) le wokeisme
. It stands at stark odds with the French tradition of 'universalism', which holds that everyone is treated the same within the coddling embrace of the patrimoine
. At its most starry-eyed, this creed maintains that the eternal principles of the revolution bequeath a society that is blind, or at least indifferent, to colour, gender, class, faith or sexuality, and that thereby renders discrimination unconscionable. This is not, one might point out, a confidence entirely shared among immigrant communities crammed into bleak urban banlieues
. Nor does the insurgent populism of far-right agitators like Éric Zemmour and Marine Le Pen promise well for fostering universal harmony.
'Wokeism' is seen as an insidious challenge to French universalism, not just from the Anglosphere (increasingly suspect since Brexit) but, worse, from the US. Le wokeisme
is not just un burger
on the menu: it is the bridgehead for a McDonalds in every Rue
. Its guiding creed is not universalism, but the tribalism of identity politics: it does not deny differences, but encourages their assertive celebration. It must therefore be resisted for reasons that go beyond linguistic purity or pedantry. Blanquer has set up an 'anti-wokeism think-tank' called the Laboratory of the Republic.
To be fair: on many statistical and legislative measures of anti-discrimination, France's record holds up well against its European (including British) neighbours. It has generally been among the first to enact the major progressive measures of social tolerance: an equalised age of consent in 1982; discrimination outlawed for sexual orientation in 1985 and gender identity in 2016; hate crimes outlawed in 2004; same-sex marriage legalised in 2014; self-identified gender transfer legalised in 2016; parental genders banished from school enrolment forms in 2019.
French cities are often cited in LGBT literature as amongst the most tolerant in the world. Here in Montpellier, the annual Pride parade is among the year's most popular festivals. France has pioneered measures to break the glass ceiling, with legislation creating quotas for women on corporate boards in 2011 and in senior management last year. Across the economy, the pay gap is slightly below the European average. Women are 39% of MPs, as well as the presidential nominees of the mainstream centre-left and centre-right parties, and of the far-right.
And yet, it would be stretching credibility to call France a society free from discrimination. Hate crimes against minorities may be illegal, but they are increasing in frequency. France leads the world on women directors of big companies (46%) but the picture is somewhat different in the smaller businesses that power the French economy.
To the expat eye, France remains a more sexist society than the UK, albeit in largely benign form. Vive la difference
persists as a way of life that few seem impatient to change. Men celebrate women with doors held open, hands kissed, seats surrendered, and elaborate manners that don't always stop short of flirtation. Women, in turn, accentuate their femininity with a care not entirely blind to allure. Mrs Aitken, slogging to improve her French, gets furious when she formulates a question, and the answer is directed back to me. On the day we moved into our flat, our neighbour, welcoming us, rebuked me gently but firmly for allowing my wife to carry a box. I thought he was joking. He wasn't.
Keith Aitken is a journalist, writer and broadcaster