From the Newsdesk

A Cultural Center Celebrating the French Language Is Inaugurated

The French language now has an official home. The Cité Internationale de la Langue Française, open to the public since November 1, is the first cultural center devoted entirely to the language spoken by some 320 million people in more than 30 countries around the globe.
© Didier Plowy/Centre des Monuments Nationaux

Based in an imposing former royal château, the Cité Internationale de la Langue Française (CILF) allows visitors to discover how French was born and developed, then spread globally and evolved through contact with other languages. Permanent exhibits examine its links with the political fabric of France, its relationship with regional languages, and its constant reinvention in French-speaking countries. Other highlights include temporary exhibitions, shows, concerts, debates, and workshops.

The location of the center is highly symbolic. Villers-Cotterêts, a small town some 50 miles northeast of Paris, has an important place in the iconography of France. The newly restored château, originally built as a hunting lodge for Francis I, was where the king signed a royal order in 1539 designating French as the official language for all administrative and legal documents, in place of Latin, which ordinary people struggled to understand. Both the town and its surroundings have a strong literary and cultural heritage. Villers-Cotterêts is the birthplace of literary giant Alexandre Dumas, who spent the first 20 years of his life there and whose headstone stands in the local graveyard. Renowned authors such as Jean Racine, Jean de La Fontaine, Paul Claudel, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau were born or lived nearby. Today, the town is one of the stops on the Route d’Artagnan, a Europe-wide program named after one of Dumas’s best-known protagonists that promotes sustainable development in tourism and culture.

The CILF is the brainchild of President Emmanuel Macron, who counts it as one of his most important cultural projects. Often mocked in the media for his frequent habit of dropping English words and phrases into his speech, Mr. Macron is also well-aware of the symbolic importance of French. In his address to mark the opening of the CILF, he highlighted the nation-building role of the language and its power to unite different francophone communities amid harsh divides between opposing political camps. “The French language brings us together,” he said, “in our unity and diversity.” The president also won applause when he spoke out against what he called “fashionable trends” in current usage, notably gender-inclusive writing, which, he said, undermines the fundamental strengths of French syntax.

Those involved in the project, notably its director Paul Rondin, have emphasized that the purpose of the CILF is to showcase the vitality of a living, evolving language, not to serve as a museum. But despite its apparently noble aims, the new center has attracted criticism. Some have complained that France’s regional languages are insufficiently represented. And a member of the Académie Française, the language’s official guardian, lamented that French has been replaced by a Franco-English hybrid and that the CILF is merely a mausoleum.

Controversy also surrounds the choice of Villers-Cotterêts as the CILF’s base. Some residents have grumbled about the cost of the project, estimated in excess of 210 million euros (223 million dollars). Dubbing the project “Château Macron,” they argue that the money should have been spent on more pressing needs. But the bickering also has a political dimension in a town that has been administered by the far-right Rassemblement National since 2014. According to the mayor, Franck Briffaut, Emmanuel Macron selected Villers-Cotterêts in a deliberate effort to loosen the RN’s grip in an economically depressed region that voted heavily for the party in the 2021 presidential election. Indeed, Mr. Macron’s office specified that the region’s economic and social difficulties – not to mention the illiteracy rate – were among the reasons it was chosen in the first place. And although some local representatives complained that they were ill-informed about the project, Mr. Briffaut himself was on the steering committee in charge of it.

While all of this may seem like petty squabbling, the sensitivity of the issues is undeniable. Indeed, the strength of public reaction, both positive and negative, to the CILF project would seem to confirm President Macron’s assertion that few countries have such impassioned discussions about their language.

Article published in the December 2023 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.