IT TOOK AN outburst that went viral to introduce the French to a new word: glottophobie. Derived from the Greek words for tongue and fear, it refers to discrimination against those who speak the language of Molière and Proust with non-standard pronunciation. Regional accents are hardly unique to France. But a history of imposing homogeneity means that, even today, those whose French does not sound Parisian face derision.
The episode emerged last week when Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a far-left firebrand, mocked a reporter with an accent from south-west France. “What does that mean?” he snapped, imitating the journalist’s Occitan twang; “Has anyone got a question phrased in French, and which is more or less comprehensible?” His put-down was as bizarre as it was offensive. The Paris-based Mr Mélenchon is a member of parliament for Marseille, a city known for its Provençal lilt.
After the filmed exchange went viral, Mr Mélenchon back-pedalled. “I thought she was mocking me,” he pleaded, dismissing the fuss as “ridiculous”. Glottophobia, though, says Philippe Blanchet, a linguist at the University of Rennes who coined the term, is far from absurd. Just as France forged a modern nation by progressively imposing a common language after the revolution, so the state in the 1950s and 1960s enforced standard pronunciation. Today, says Mr Blanchet, those discriminated against most are from the north, whose intonation is known as “Ch’ti”.
Deputies have denounced such snobbery. Bruno Studer, from the east, adopted an Alsatian accent in parliament this week to make a point. Laetitia Avia, a deputy who grew up in Seine-Saint-Denis, a tough banlieue of Paris, even proposed legislating against glottophobie. She had learned the hard way, she said, by ditching her accent when she first studied on the Left Bank. But the prejudice seems likely to persist in a centralised country whose public broadcasters make little effort to buck it. Things have not moved on all that far from the days when Georges Pompidou, an ex-president, advised Charles Pasqua, a southern politician, to take diction classes to overcome his “handicap”.