Click on the shaded quotes to hear the accents of the people speaking them.
On October 17, 2018, the influential left-wing French politician Jean-Luc Mélenchon was asked a question by a reporter working for the broadcaster France 3 about recent police searches carried out at his home and the premises of his party, La France Insoumise.
Mélenchon, in a thinly-veiled attempt to deflect attention away from the corruption investigation, responded by openly mocking the accent of Véronique Gaurel, a veteran journalist from Toulouse, a city in the southwest of France.
“What does that mean? What is your question?” Mélenchon asked, interrupting Gaurel’s question mid sentence while caricaturing her accent. “Does anyone have a question formulated in French that is more or less understandable? Because me, your level exceeds me,” he said sarcastically. “I do not understand you.”
The footage sent shockwaves across France. The National Union of Journalists published a statement condemning “the verbal violence and gratuitous humiliation.” Lawmaker Pieyre-Alexandre Anglade said the comments showed a “deep contempt for the country, its territories and its diversity.” Carole Delga, president of Occitania, the region home to Toulouse, then witheringly suggested Mélenchon try to relax by listening to a song by local cult band Zebda called “The Accent Killed” — an homage to the Toulouse accent and a lament for the gradual loss of it.
For many, the incident was an important turning point in how accents are perceived in France, where diverse historical and cultural influences — from the 10th century Norse Viking invaders in the north, to the vibrant postcolonial diaspora communities from West Africa, the Maghreb and beyond — have created a huge linguistic variety.
Mélenchon was forced into a rare, albeit mealy-mouthed apology two days later. But, more significantly, that very same month the French government announced the tabling of a bill against the so-called “glottophobia,” or accent discrimination, that Mélenchon’s actions so crudely highlighted.
In November the legislation, officially known as “the Law to Promote the France of Accents” made its way to a vote in France’s National Assembly. Overwhelming support saw the bill adopted by 98 votes to three, criminalizing accent discrimination — described by some supporters as a form of racism — with up to three years’ jail time and a fine of up to €45,000 (USD$54,000). Now it is inscribed as an offense under France’s Labor and Penal Codes.
“It is essential today, for the sake of equal opportunities and in times of doubt as to the cohesion of the territories that founded the [French] nation, to send a strong sign of recognition, by promoting the revaluation of ‘atypical’ pronunciations,” states the text, which has been heralded as the first law establishing an individual’s right to an accent in the world.
In France, Accents Are Now Protected by Law
Listen to the author of this story discuss his own experience as an expat with an accent.
Equality campaigners hope the law will be a significant step forward in combating accent bias, which has blocked careers in prominent fields like academia, broadcasting and politics — as well as daily life. “It impacts access to housing, healthcare, education, jobs,” says Philippe Blanchet, a linguist at the University of Rennes who coined the term “glottophobia” (he was born in Marseille but has lived in Brittany for 30 years — both areas with strong accents that have influenced his unique tone). “It’s very spread throughout society.”
An issue finds its voice
In recent years — particularly since the incident involving Mélenchon — glottophobia has been the subject of growing awareness in France and has led a number of public figures to speak out about how they have been shamed for their accents.
Television host Diane Ducret, who grew up between Belgium and a town in France’s Basque region, said when she first began hosting programs, her director sent her to a speech therapist. The actor and comedian Patrick Bosso said that since he decided to keep his Marseillais accent he only receives proposals for stereotypical roles. Jean-Michel Aphatie, a veteran broadcaster, revealed that when he first spoke on the radio, he received letters from listeners saying: “How dare you talk about politics with your accent!” During the French parliament’s debates over the bill, Patricia Mirallès, a lawmaker whose parents emigrated from North Africa, spoke of the “mockery” she used to face.
Crushed by negative news?Sign up for the Reasons to be Cheerful newsletter.
“In the Paris region, where the centers of power are concentrated, places of political and administrative power, politicians and parliamentarians and journalists have the tendency to reproduce a way of speaking that is relatively homogeneous,” says Franck Neveu, a leading professor of linguistics at the Sorbonne University in Paris. He says that regional variations across France have long been the classist target of disdain from the bourgeois Parisian elite, to the point that they were intentionally targeted for eradication through the national school system after the French revolution.
And yet, some 30 million French people say they have an accent — nearly half of France’s 67 million population, according to a survey carried out last year for the book I Have An Accent, And So? Of that, 17 million say they have been mocked and 11 million discriminated against because of it.
“There’s almost nobody with a regional accent who leads a prestigious program on radio or television,” says Michel Feltin-Palas, the book’s author and editor-in-chief of magazine L’Express (whose father is Parisian but whose mother is from the southern Béarnais region). “No actor at the Comédie Française speaks with a regional accent, you don’t have famous intellectuals who speak with a regional accent, nor famous lawyers.”
A different kind of discrimination
France is far from the only country with this problem. This pattern of what French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu called “unilingualism,” boosted by the arrival of radio and television, exists across the world. Countless examples of accent discrimination and bias exist in every country — often along regional lines.
In the U.K., Liverpool’s Scouse, Birmingham’s Brummy and Newcastle’s Geordie accents are among those to fall afoul of the Queen’s English. The Andalusians of southern Spain are mocked by those in Madrid for their loose, “lazy” way of speech. In China, those that stray from the gold standard Beijing Mandarin are frowned upon. The Aboriginal communities in Australia have long suffered discrimination for the way they speak. And in the U.S., the dialect of the coastal elites rules over the vast variety of accents in between — from New Orleans’s Yat to Boston’s drawl and the Southern twang.
These biases can take root very early on. A 2012 study analyzing attitudes of children in Illinois and Tennessee towards accents found that those aged between five and six “did not demonstrate knowledge of any stereotypes,” but for nine and ten-year-olds in the same states the Northern accent sounded more “in charge” and the Southern accent sounded “nicer.” Researchers pointed to the role of the film industry and the media, such as the accents of national news anchors, as part of the reasons for this development.
But while in some of these countries, including the U.S. and Canada, there are forms of protection against accent discrimination already in place, none are as significant as France’s new law according to Erez Levon, one of the world’s leading experts on accent bias and a professor of sociolinguistics at the University of Bern.
“It’s the first I know of to protect native accents from discrimination,” Levon said, explaining that other countries’ laws have focused on foreign accents as opposed to differences of region and/or social class. Additionally, other laws have been developed on the basis of precedent and case law, rather than legislation, Levon explains. “That’s what makes the French law so interesting.”
But beyond the more obvious links between accent and geographical region, experts say a number of factors in such discrimination are at play — class, race, gender, nationality and sexuality are among them. Research in the U.S. has found the way African Americans speak impacts the way jurors view them — audio recordings of people speaking African American Vernacular English (AAVE) compared to General American English (GAE) “predicted more negative overall evaluations of the speaker, and these negative evaluations were associated with an increase in guilty verdicts.”
“You’ll always get more noticeably different accents the lower down the social scale you go,” says Rob Drummond, a sociologist who co-runs Manchester Metropolitan University’s Accentism Project, which records victims’ testimonies. “Women face more criticism over the way they speak than men. And people will be criticized for differences that people perceive to do with sexuality.”
Respecting accents, shifting attitudes
“[The law] is a very good thing,” Christophe Euzet, said the French parliamentarian of the southern Hérault region who led the efforts behind the bill. “It banalizes accents. It normalizes them.”
For Euzet, a key evidence of that shift in attitudes is the case of Jean Castex, who was appointed France’s Prime Minister in summer 2020. The former mayor of the Pyrenean town of Prades became France’s first post-war head of government to have a strong local accent. “We’ve been listening to the accent of Prime Minister Castex for some months, and now we listen to Castex for what he says,” adds Euzet.
While the law’s full impact is expected to be felt over the coming years as behaviors adjust, another early sign of it’s scale was French national broadcaster FranceInfo’s naming “glottophobia” one of the words of 2020.
Journalist Feltin-Palas even argues the law protects the accent as a human right. “Accents are a fundamental part of an individual,” he says.
When it comes to the legal implications, labor law experts believe change might be hard to come by. Philippe Ravisy, lawyer for the Paris-based firm Astaé Avocats, believes court rulings against accent bias will be difficult to achieve given the high burden of proof for discrimination.
However, Ravisy says that such rulings aren’t impossible. Sarah Lazri, a 27-year-old Algerian based in Toulouse, is among those whose past experiences could be considered a clear-cut case of accent discrimination.
Last summer the engineering graduate, who also has a Master’s degree in data science, applied for a position as a business developer at a Parisian company. Lazri was invited for an initial interview, and then progressed to two further stages.
During the final interview, the general manager said something unexpected. “He told me: ‘You have everything that we are looking for, but we are hesitating because we need somebody who will have to phone clients,’” she recounts. “‘But you have a Middle Eastern accent, and that won’t work.’”
At first, Lazri’s reaction was of complete surprise. “Because frankly, I had done two days of interviews already,” she says. “They made me sign a confidentiality contract. They asked me to do two presentations. So I didn’t understand why they took so much time, and asked me to provide so much information about what I was capable of, in order for them to just say: ‘We’re not hiring you because of your accent.’”
While the incident “comes back into my mind a lot,” according to Lazri, she believes the law will prevent it from happening again. “It will change things for companies,” she says. “It will make companies afraid of discriminating.”
The battle is far from won, and parts of France’s traditional establishment continue to downplay such bias and reinforce “canonical” French through the education system, elocution classes and oratory schools.
Patrick Vannier of the Académie Française, which produces French dictionaries and has been the leading authority on French language since 1635, is among the doubters. “In the French language [accents] don’t have an important role because it’s not possible to have discrimination from a linguistic point of view,” he says.
The general shift of attitudes in France is nonetheless towards proper recognition of the fundamental role and value of accents. And it will need to as the world, increasingly globalized and digitalized, evolves: Surveys show 44 percent of French speakers live in sub-Saharan Africa — double the number in France itself — and by 2050, estimates project that number to rise to 85 percent.
Hence why some say the relevance and recognition of accents is as important as ever. Maina Sage, a lawmaker from French Polynesia, argues the law shouldn’t be seen as “the alpha and the omega” of ending accent bias — but a starting point to have a conservation about the state of French society.
“I think we’re asking ourselves a good question in France,” she says. “What is the France of today? What do we want to build together? Outside of appearances and correct pronunciations and correct accents, what do we want to build together?”