French MPs want English dropped as EU language

English is widely used in Brussels despite having few native speakers after Brexit

Seeing Brexit as a golden opportunity to assert linguistic supremacy, a group of French politicians is pressing for la langue française to push aside English and German and become the EU’s sole working language.

The UK’s departure from the bloc means native English speakers are a minority in the EU, with only Ireland and Malta using it as an official language.

Yet English remains a default means of communication in Brussels, and is one of three official working languages, with French and German.

The French government hopes to use its presidency of the EU in 2022 to shift the balance in favour of its native tongue.

But some MPs want to go farther, by kicking English into touch altogether – while similarly downgrading German.

“English is now the mother tongue of only 1 per cent of the EU population,” said Julien Aubert, a centre-right MP who made his case to a parliamentary committee this week.

“In addition, many jurists believe that French makes it easier than English to understand legal concepts that you find in other countries on the continent.”

He acknowledged that German, which is an official language in Germany, Austria and Belgium, has more native speakers than French within the EU.

But he said that French has a greater international status, for example as an official language of the United Nations, which German is not.

“This is an opportunity for economic, judicial and cultural independence from globalisation with an Anglo-Saxon hue,” he said.

Members of European parliament cast electronic votes on the Brexit withdrawal agreement in the Hemicycle of the European Parliament in Brussels, Belgium, on Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2020. The U.K. will probably need significantly longer than eleven months to strike a future trade deal with the European Union, the bloc’s chief Brexit negotiator warned. Photographer: Olivier Matthys/Bloomberg

'Anglo-Saxon culture'

French was once a natural language of diplomacy and government – two of the many English words derived from French over the centuries.

But it gradually became displaced as British and American influence came to the fore. French itself has been infused with English terminology, especially in commercial and technical fields.

A turning point for the EU was in 2004, when the bloc expanded into Eastern Europe – where English is far more widely understood than French.

Mr Aubert’s resolution cited statistics showing that the imbalance in Brussels had increased hugely in favour of English since the 1990s.

As of 2017, 84 per cent of translated documents produced by the European Commission were originally written in English, it said.

More than two dozen MPs have put their name to Mr Aubert’s resolution, which calls on ministers to take on the possibly thankless task of persuading their EU colleagues. Any change would need to be agreed unanimously by all 27 members.

“Since the UK has left the EU, there is no longer any reason for the institutions of the EU to be soaked in Anglo-Saxon culture,” the resolution says.

Clement Beaune, France’s European Affairs Minister, described the country’s upcoming EU presidency as a chance to promote the language.

He set up a working group in April dedicated to “French and multilingualism in the European institutions”, which will make proposals to strengthen its use.

President Emmanuel Macron, who faces a battle with the nationalist far right at a presidential election next year, has spoken of restoring the language’s role in the world.

After ministers unveiled a bilingual identity card in March, the far-right National Rally blamed Mr Macron for what it called the “ultimate affront to the French language”.

The EU has 24 official languages, meaning laws are published in all of them – although a lack of Irish-speaking translators means the Celtic language does not get full coverage.

There are dozens more minority languages such as Basque, Catalan and Frisian, whose legal status is decided at national level.

Updated: October 8th 2021, 9:08 AM
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