Today's Paper Arkansas News LEARNS Guide Legislature Sports Core Values Puzzles Newsletters Public Notices Archive Obits Opinion Story Ideas

French language bill shakes up Quebec, deepens culture split

by The New York Times | October 10, 2021 at 5:13 a.m.

MONTREAL -- Since Aude Le Dube opened an English-only bookshop in Montreal last year, she has had several unwelcome guests each month: irate Francophones, sometimes draped in Quebec flags, who storm in and berate her for not selling books in French.

"You would think I had opened a sex shop at the Vatican," mused Le Dube, a novelist from Brittany, France, and an ardent F. Scott Fitzgerald fan.

Now, however, Le Dube is worried that resistance against businesses like her De Stiil bookshop will intensify. A language bill that the Quebec government has proposed would solidify the status of French as the paramount language in Quebec, a move that could undermine businesses that depend on English.

Under the legislation, which builds on a four-decade-old language law and is expected to pass in the coming months, small and medium-size businesses would face more rigorous regulations to ensure they are operating in French, including raising the bar for companies to justify why they need to hire employees with a command of a language other than French. Government language inspectors would have expanded powers to raid offices and search private computers and iPhones. And the number of Francophone Quebecers who can attend English-language colleges would be severely limited.

Language is inextricably bound to identity in Quebec, a former French colony that fell to Britain in 1763. Today, French-speaking Quebecers are a minority in North America, where their language faces a daily challenge in English-dominated social media and global popular culture.

In Quebec, French is already the official language of the government, commerce and the courts. On commercial advertising and public signs, the French must be predominant. And children of immigrant families must attend French schools.

The new bill is spurring a backlash among the province's English-speaking minority and others, who complain that it seeks to create a monocultural Quebec in multicultural Canada and tramples over human rights.

The debate over language is particularly heated in Montreal, a cosmopolitan city with a large English-speaking minority. Such is the alarm about the fragility of French in Quebec that a few years ago the provincial government passed a nonbinding resolution calling for shop attendants to replace "bonjour hi" -- a common greeting in bilingual, tourist-friendly Montreal -- with just "bonjour."

The premier of Quebec, Francois Legault, has argued that the new law is "urgently required" to stave off the decline of the French language in a Francophone-majority province.

"It's nothing against the English Quebecers," he said.

Other proponents argue that the legislation is necessary in a world in which the pull of English is so strong.

But critics of the bill say that stigmatizing bilingualism will prove damaging for Quebec.

"Language should be a bridge to other cultures, but this bill wants to erect barriers," said Le Dube, whose bookshop is in Montreal's Plateau-Mont-Royal, a neighborhood with a large Francophone community, street art and hip cafes.

To shield the bill from potential court challenges, the government has invoked a constitutional loophole known as the "notwithstanding clause," which gives Canadian governments the power to breach some constitutional rights, including freedom of religion or expression.

Quebec's quest to preserve French has echoes in other countries, including the United States, where more than 20 states, amid the proliferation of Spanish, have enacted laws in recent years to make English the official language.

The bill requires that companies justify their need to hire employees with knowledge of a language other than French. Its proponents are concerned that a bilingual person could be hired in preference to one speaking only French, putting Francophones at a disadvantage.

Le Dube said that, being from Brittany, where the Breton language had declined rapidly in the 20th century under persecution from France, she understood all too well the importance of preserving a nation's language.

But, she quickly added, "Why can't different languages coexist?"

Print Headline: French language bill shakes up Quebec, deepens culture split


Sponsor Content