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French Battle Over Gender Titles

July 1, 1998

PARIS (AP) _ It’s as simple as trading a ``la″ for a ``le.″ But saying ``Madame la Ministre″ has turned into a battle between the reformist leftist government and old-guard defenders of the French language.

The Ministry of Education announced this week it will require the use of feminized titles in its department, something the sages at the Academie Francaise are fighting to block.

The Academie may go to the country’s highest legal body to stop the move.

``Socialist ideology is ruining France and the French language at the same time,″ Academie head Maurice Druon, 80, told the conservative daily Le Figaro, which ran a photo of him wearing a black hat like the sheriff riding in for a showdown.

Druon, born during World War I when French was still the lingua franca of diplomacy, leads the charge to stave off words like ``software,″ ``marketing″ and ``tour operator″ _ all no-nos in the official French dictionary because they are imports.

Conservative French governments have enacted laws requiring French in advertising or official functions, but enforcement has been lax. Movie posters and shops continue to advertise in English.

But more than past battles against encroaching English, however, the latest language fight boils down to France’s struggle over how to modernize.

``Every opportunity must be taken to introduce the feminine form of names of job occupations, so that the use of the latter imposes itself little by little in our administration,″ said the ministerial decree, to take effect July 9. One of the education ministers is a woman, Segolene Royal.

New titles will include ``inspectrice″ along with ``inspecteur″ (inspector), ``doyenne″ with ``doyen″ (dean) and the feminine articles ``la″ or ``une″ before neutrally spelled terms like ``chef de service″ (service chief).

While the order applies only to the Ministry of Education, it may later be adopted by other Cabinet offices.

The very thought appalls the 39-member Academie, which includes just two women. At its annual meeting Thursday, the group was to discuss whether to ask for a ruling from the Constitutional Council, which can strike down laws, said Laurent Personne, a spokesman for Druon.

Druon takes the strict grammarian’s view. According to rules of the French language, all nouns are masculine or feminine, without regard to the gender of the person to whom they refer, he contends.

But many French have little regard for such arguments, claiming that such rigidity among those in power ends up hurting France’s efforts to change with the times.

While France is surely not the only country that likes some amount of purity in its language, not every nation has a private academy that steers the evolution of the spoken and written word.

``He’s an old fool,″ advertising executive Lilliane Hansen said of Druon. ``This is why the country is in trouble. It’s completely stuck.″

The ministry’s decree actually implements a little-noticed decision made 12 years ago by Socialist Prime Minister Laurent Fabius. Druon told Le Figaro that the current Socialist prime minister, Lionel Jospin, ``wanting to please his harem, relaunched an old idea.″

The battle first flared in January, when the Academie sent a letter to conservative President Jacques Chirac, asking him to intervene with the government’s plan.

Personne said Chirac responded, but he would not elaborate on the nature of the response. Chirac’s Elysee Palace had no immediate comment.

``The Academie is not ignored,″ Personne insisted. ``On the contrary.″

But the body has no legal authority, and without official action on its behalf, inspectrices will soon be working alongside inspecteurs, and doyens will be collaborating with doyennes.

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