France has filed two complaints against the EU for using too much English during recruitment processes. Focusing on two so-called recruitment competition “notices” in 2022 and 2023, the case centres on elements of the hiring tests that were only available in English.
French is one of the 24 official EU languages but enjoys a privileged position as one of the Commission’s three working languages (alongside English and German), as well as one of the Council’s two spoken languages.
Influence and representation
It could be noted therefore that of all the countries with reason to complain, France has little reason to do so. France is the third most represented country in the bloc’s institutions after Italy and Belgium, with over 3,000 of its nationals working at the Commission in 2023.
And yet it’s not the first time the French have attempted to flex their linguistic muscle in the bloc. Back in 2021, when France took on its rotation in the EU Presidency, it announced that all meetings of the Council would take place in French and that communications not addressed in French would be ignored. French language training and debates for EU officials in French were proposed. Some might argue the French would have done better to implement foreign language training for its own officials, who are under-represented statistically at top levels, if it wants to gain even more influence.
Legally-speaking, all the bloc’s 24 languages are equal. In practice though, and particularly for certain fields, such as defence, economics and space, the EU’s selection processes test candidates’ ability to work in English, because once hired, they must hit the ground running using English to carry out their job.
But now the French have taken matters to the EU’s top legal instance, saying the practice violates bloc rules about treating all candidates equally, and discriminates against those who would perform better in an alternative language, or their native tongue.
Yes, all of this is an administrative burden. It is also a political choice to preserve the usefulness of the French language. EU institutions also mostly happen to be located in a French speaking city.— MaxJ (@AndydandyGJ) July 22, 2023
“It discriminates against non-anglophone candidates,” one French diplomat speaking anonymously told Politico, and according to them, the French are not the only ones complaining. An Italian official agreed, stressing “this is not a position against a specific language but in favor of multilingualism.”
Others, including the Commission in previous court cases, argue that not having the language skills to carry out your job properly, especially when it comes to fields that are dominated globally by English, such as aerospace, is a huge problem that will not help change the bloc’s reputation for lack of efficiency.
Some might add that the bloc can hardly be accused of a lack of multilingualism. The abstract, verbal and numerical reasoning tests that form part of civil servant recruitment for the bloc, are supposed to be available in all its 24 languages. What’s more, a spokesperson points out that “EPSO is moving gradually to a full 24- language regime for its upcoming open competitions.”
The French court filings come amid ongoing malaise in France about a decline in international influence and a huge push from President Macron and others to ensure that “la francophonie” (French-speaking) does not die out or become marginalised.
I hear Monsieur Macron wants the French language to be the common dialect of the EU. Sounds a bit like the last French midget that tried to conquer Europe. He didnt last long either. #Napoléon— Ali (@alibrown23) June 9, 2021
It’s a debate that has been raging for years in a country where the purity of the French language is supposedly protected by an “Académie”. This is an institution which in the recent past has sought to prevent French from absorbing the influence of other cultures, insisting that words such as “weekend” or “chewing gum” that have entered popular usage, are not employed in official channels, or weighing in on intellectual debates about how masculine and feminine nouns shape society.
But is preventing a language from evolving the answer? Many think not and accuse the Académie of being increasingly old-fashioned, irrelevant, white-centric and lacking in gender diversity. As many language teachers and parents attempting to bring up children in bilingual households already know, you cannot force people to speak a language, but instead need to give them a good reason to want to do so.