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French Academicians Let Politicians Know It's Still an Homme's World

Linguists say feminization of titles is ungrammatical--and worrisome.

January 16, 1998|JOHN-THOR DAHLBURG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PARIS — Members of the august Academie Francaise usually keep their noses out of politics. Every Thursday, the 40 "immortals," as they are known, gather at their domed home by the Seine for the never-ending chore of updating the academy's dictionary of the French language (as of this week they were on the second volume of the 9th edition, endeavoring to define the English import "manager").

Lately, however, three of the academicians--including the Academie's 79-year-old "perpetual secretary," Maurice Druon, and one of the eminent body's two women, Helene Carrere d'Encausse--have been sufficiently worried by a development in government circles that they have appealed publicly to President Jacques Chirac to stop it.

The purity of French is at stake, they warned, along with the "image of France in the world" and the nation's "cultural future."

The troubling development: Some of the six female colleagues of Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin have made it known that they prefer to be called madame la ministre instead of madame le ministre.

For Cabinet members such as Socialist Segolene Royal and Dominique Voynet of the Greens party, using the feminine article "la" instead of the masculine "le" is a subtle but clear signal that women, long kept at arm's length from power in France, have arrived.

For the trio of academicians, it's a shocking and ungrammatical deviation in a language where all nouns have a gender. Whether the person given the job is a man or a woman, they maintain, the word "minister" in French was and remains masculine.

And what might be next, Druon, Carrere d'Encausse and colleague Hector Biancotti fret in their letter to Chirac, which was published in the Parisian newspaper Le Figaro. Are female lawyers, now given the same courtesy title of "master" as their male counterparts, to be called "mistress," with the double-entendre that entails? Should the inscription on the Pantheon, the Paris monument that is the equivalent of Britain's Westminster Abbey, be rechiseled to be less gender specific (it now praises "great men," hommes in French being a synonym for all human beings)? Will France buckle to the same "demagogic influences," they ask, that in Quebec and Belgium have spawned new coinages such as professeure (a female teacher) and sapeuse-pompiere (a female firefighter)?

Get used to it, has come the reply of many female politicians here. "If certain words don't have a feminine variation, it's because for centuries, there was no woman to occupy those functions," said Royal, the minister for public schools.

"No one can ignore that the systematic use of the masculine indicates a masculine image of power, which can only reinforce the supremacy of men in a supermasculinized world," said legislator Joelle Dusseau, who has started calling herself the French version of "senatress."

In France, where a rigorous spelling contest was judged such engrossing prime-time television that millions tuned in Saturday to watch, the status of the language is a national obsession. The Academie Francaise, in existence since 1635, is supposed to preserve the purity of the tongue of Moliere and Voltaire while adapting it to modern needs. It is worth noting that it was only in 1980 that the immortals opened their ranks to a woman, the late Belgian-born novelist Marguerite Yourcenar.

"The problem is that the language still needs to take account of the feminization of power," said Catherine Colonna, Chirac's spokeswoman (her French title too is a masculine noun). It's how people speak, Colonna predicted, and not what a few academicians say, that will decide the issue.

Her boss, though, is playing it safe. The day the immortals sent their impassioned missive, Chirac was to meet with Justice Minister Elisabeth Guigou. An advance text of his remarks showed that he too had embraced the new formula madame la ministre. Within hours, the text was changed.

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