Women's way with words

July 17, 1998

The Academie Francaise, guardian of the French language, is threatening a constitutional challenge to ministerial orders to feminise education jobs and titles.

In a circular that takes effect this week, education minister Claude All gre and schools minister Segol ne Royal have ordered that all official references to education posts, grades and titles must include feminine versions alongside the masculine norms.

Directors, managers, computer programmers and inspectors become directrices (as well as directeurs), controleuses (controleurs), programmatrices (programmateurs) and inspectrices (inspecteurs). Other unwaveringly masculine designations, such as proviseur (lycee head), professeur (teacher or professor) and med cin (doctor), are henceforth optionally feminine.

The ministry of education, research and technology is the first public body to adopt instructions first issued 12 years ago by Laurent Fabius, then prime minister, to feminise government and civil service documents. However, these lay dormant until Lionel Jospin, the present prime minister, resurrected them in March.

The circular signed by Mr All gre and Madame Royal states: "The affirmation of equality between women and men in all areas of the civil service is intended to accompany an inevitable move in contemporary society which cannot be challenged."

However, the "Immortels" - members of the Academie Francaise, which guards the purity of the French language - believe that it can. Furious at such mutilation of the national tongue, they have threatened to take the matter to the Constitutional Council, the supreme arbiter on what governments may and may not do constitutionally.

The Academie's permanent secretary, Maurice Druon, denounced "the appropriation of a function by the person who exercises it" which, he said, "is contrary to the principles of equality contained in the Constitution."

The 39 academiciens - of whom two are academiciennes - are unmoved by arguments that other French-speaking parts of the world such as Quebec and Belgium have adopted comparable language updates.

This is not the first time Mme Royal has offended the Immortels. At the beginning of the year they objected when she and other women government ministers adopted the designation "Madame la ministre" rather than "Madame le ministre".

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