France’s constitutional watchdog Saturday partially overturned a controversial law to enforce use of the French language.
The nine-member Constitutional Council ruled that the government had no right to impose official French translations of foreign words on private citizens, companies and the media. It could only force their use by public authorities and nationalized companies other than radio and television.
Among the words the government sought to ban in advertisements, broadcasts, menus and books were “cheeseburger,” “cash flow,” “marketing,” “software” and “air bag.”
The council said articles of the law, adopted by Parliament on July 1, violated freedom of expression and communication as guaranteed in the preamble to the French constitution.
“Freedom of expression implies the right of each citizen to choose the most appropriate terms to express his thought,” the council ruled.
“Like any living language, the French language evolves. . . . It cannot remain frozen.” If official terms were imposed, French “would risk becoming a dead language,” the ruling said.
But the council upheld the section affecting government officials and employees, citing Article 2 of the constitution, which stipulates that “the language of the republic is French.”
Martin Malvy, president of the Socialist caucus in Parliament that challenged the law, called the ruling “good news for democracy and for the French-speaking world,” which he said “needs more writing than gendarmes.”
The newspaper Le Monde called the ruling a triumph of common sense, but the ruling was read quite differently by the government.
Culture Minister Jacques Toubon, who initiated the law to try to repel an “Anglo-Saxon invasion” of English words, called the ruling “extremely positive” but acknowledged that it meant the government could not tell private citizens what words to use.
Toubon said the legislation was vital to the long-term survival of the French language, which was being eroded in such areas as medical and scientific seminars.
Ridiculed abroad, the law enjoyed broad public support in France, according to opinion polls, except among people under 25, whose slang is often peppered with English terms picked up from rock music.
Fines of up to $3,700 had been proposed for violations of the law. Fines already exist for announcements such as theater posters and airline boarding passes not printed in French, but the regulations have rarely been enforced.