Today, July 14, is Bastille Day, the 218th anniversary of the Fête de la Fédération, the 219th anniversary of the storming of the Bastille, and the national day of France. On this day we celebrate the French Revolution, the end of feudalism, the disestablishment of the church, and the promulgation of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. For some of us it is also a day that reminds us of Jim McCawley.
From a linguistic point of view, however, the French Revolution was a disaster. The monarchy had been largely unconcerned with what languages its subjects spoke. At the time, the languages spoken by natives of France included six Romance languages: French, Occitan, Franco-Provencal, Walloon, Catalan, and Corsican (a dialect of Italian), the Germanic languages Flemish and German, the Celtic language Breton, and Basque. Some of these, especially French and Occitan, each had numerous divergent forms. Additional languages, such as Berber and Tahitian, now qualify as "French". A full list may be found in the Cerquiglini report Les Langues de la France.
One of the effects of the Revolution was to bring about a greatly increased centralization of the French government and a policy of establishing a standard form of French as the only language of the Republic. I emphasize that the policy adopted was not merely to ensure that all French citizens shared a common language, but to eliminate all competitors. This is readily seen in the title of the report by the Abbé Grégoire establishing the policy: Rapport sur la nécessité et les moyens d'anéantir les patois et d'universaliser la langue française "Report on the necessity and means of annihlating the dialects and of making the French Language universal". Since the Revolution, all French governments have been hostile to minority languages.
This policy has been quite successful. Today, virtually all of the minority languages of France are endangered. The only exceptions are languages such as Catalan, which is not endangered because it is spoken primarily outside of France.
Grégoire was a genuine progressive. Though a priest, he played a leading role in the abolition of the privileges of the clergy and the nobility and was the first to call for the abolition of the monarchy in the National Convention of 1792. It was he who first called for Louis XVI to be brought to trial. He was an early advocate of racial equality. Due, however, to his influence, regional and linguistic minorities in France have not enjoyed the support of the political left that they have received in some other countries.
French linguistic policy is not quite as bad as it used to be. It is, for example, now legal to teach minority languages in French schools. Even so, the situation of minority languages in France is very much that of second-class citizens. For example, in 1974 I attended high school classes in Occitan in Bergerac. Occitan was offered at five o'clock on Friday afternoons.
To this day, France has not ratified the 1992 European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, which it cannot do without modifying its constitution, which makes French the sole official language of France. (Lest it be thought that this is due to a perhaps understandable unwillingness to tinker with the constitution, I note that the Constitution of the Fifth Republic has been amended 23 times since its promulgation in 1958.)