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France’s latest intellectual conflagration, prompting a warning from the Académie Française and the intervention of the prime minister, has been about punctuation.
At the heart of the debate is the interpunct, also known as the middle dot. This is a form of “inclusive writing”, a relatively novel concept in France, that aims to tackle what some feminist activists have denounced as implicit male domination in the French language.
Supporters say the dot will fix the four-century-old grammatical rule whereby the masculine gender takes precedence over the feminine in plurals. For example, “fainéants” — a term recently used by President Emmanuel Macron to describe opponents to his jobs reforms — can describe a group of male “slackers” or a mix of women and men. The dot makes the female elements visible: “fainéant·e·s”.
Few paid attention in 2015 when the (consultative) High Council for Gender Equality spoke in favour of inclusive writing. Then some local administrations, including the Paris municipal council headed by Socialist firebrand Anne Hidalgo, and non-governmental organisations such as Greenpeace, started using it.
But what caused the recent uproar was the publication of a school textbook for eight-year-olds pockmarked with middle dots. The Académie’s “immortals”, the guardians of the dictionary (all but four of whom are men), warned that the idea “imperilled” the French language. Education minister Jean-Michel Blanquer, who has advocated a return to academic basics, said the middle dot was “ugly”, in addition to making reading more difficult for pupils. A group of rightwing Républicains members of parliament submitted a bill to ban it, while columnists in the conservative press vehemently decried it.
The middle-dot advocates had “totalitarian” motives, Sorbonne historian Jacques Rougeot wrote in Valeurs Actuelles, the staunchly rightwing weekly. He added: “By attacking language, they are attacking the intellectual and spiritual heart of our society.”
Over dinner last week, my friends and I (the party included a handful of journalists, an author and a publisher) tried to make sense of the backlash. We struggled as we attempted to use the technique verbally, and imagined ourselves searching for the “point médian” on our keyboards.
Above all, we were baffled by the acrimony. Could it be a symptom of Macronism and the political apathy that has enveloped the country since the president’s election in May? After Mr Macron claimed to have moved beyond left and right, was the traditional political faultline resurfacing in arguments over grammar?
Jérôme Fourquet, a pollster at Ifop who ran a survey on the debate last week, has a more scientific response: inclusive writing has “hit a nerve” beyond conservative circles in Paris, he says. It is a reminder that anxieties over identity have not disappeared. For a majority of French people, spelling and grammar are sacrosanct.
Shortly after he was elected, Mr Macron made a point of visiting Villers-Cotterêts, a town north-east of Paris run by the far-right Front National, where King François I issued the ordinance making French the official language of the court. The French state, Mr Macron told youngsters there, had “built itself on the French language.
Mr Fourquet says that “people feel the French language is deteriorating with new technology . . . and English words are contaminating French culture”.
The middle dot furore hit a peak when Green members of the Paris council suggested renaming the day of national heritage (“patrimoine”) the day of “matrimoine” and “patrimoine” to acknowledge women’s contribution to culture. Sensing an opportunity to boost his approval ratings, prime minister Edouard Philippe declared that public bodies would not use inclusive writing.
The sad part of this affair is that it may have been detrimental to the very cause it was supposed to serve — gender equality. As Mr Macron has vowed to make the fight against everyday sexism and harassment a priority, the middle dot activists may have just given sceptics a reason to dismiss his efforts.