Pierre Tremblay left for France in 2011 to become a journalist.
Towards the end of his studies, when he had to choose his specialization, he was made clear that because of his Quebec accent, he would have little chance of being hired as a reporter at the microphone.
He was kindly directed towards the job of cameraman-reporter, where his voice and his person would be much less put forward.
“I suspected that the accent could be a problem. They clearly told me. They knew that in the television news, in the big TVs, we are quite strict on the question of the accent. It was therefore a less risky path. But I’m not at all bitter, I don’t blame them. They were honest with me, ”says the journalist from Matane, who now works for HuffPost in Paris.
Pierre Tremblay’s case is not unique. In France, the issue of accent is a real issue when it comes to applying for a job. In an IFOP survey published in early 2020, 16% of people questioned said they had been victims of discrimination in hiring, or in their professional progression, because of their accent.
This corresponds to around 11 million people living in France. It’s not nothing.
The problem is worrying enough that the deputy Christophe Euzet, of the Agir ensemble party (center right), tabled a bill to fight against “glottophobia”, or, if you prefer, discrimination based on accent. The law, adopted Thursday in the National Assembly, must be validated by the Senate.
Christophe Euzet is originally from Hérault, in the south of France. He notes that his singing accent has earned him a lot of “benevolent condescension” behind the scenes of the hemicycle. He deplores that the accent of the “Parisian elite” has imposed itself as the norm in the public sphere, mainly in speech professions, “identified with knowledge, power, spirit, culture”.
This is particularly true in the case of the mainstream media, which do not represent at all the diversity of accents found in France and in the French-speaking world.
“How many people with the southern accent to comment on a commemoration of November 11?” How much to comment on the political situation in the Middle East? How much to host a debate on TV on political philosophy in the 20th centurye century? Zero ”, he laments.
Beyond the figures, the deputy even says he is “convinced” that this monopoly of the accent has repercussions on social cohesion.
According to him, it is no coincidence that the crisis of yellow vests (this great French protest movement of 2018) was more acute in the north and in the south of France. The inhabitants of these regions, particularly discriminated against for their accent, had a big problem of identifying with power.
We live in a world where people are looking at screens all day long. However, when we have a deep social crisis, when we expect deep answers and when the speech we hear in the little square box is held by an elite whose accent we do not share, people have the impression not to be represented by public speaking.
Christophe Euzet deputy of the Agir ensemble party
“They no longer find themselves in this mode of expression of the Parisian elite that they consider to be external to them, even foreign. And they feel all the more excluded from the national community. ”
Connotations and hierarchy
This accent discrimination is not new.
You should know that since the Revolution, France has been built on an extremely centralized model of national identity, with a conception of the nation as a uniform people. We first eradicated regional languages (Breton, Basque, Provençal, Béarnais), then we fought against regional variations in French.
The Parisian big bourgeoisie, which replaced the ruling aristocracy, imposed its standard.
Result: accents with “dissident” tones, such as Corsican, Marseille, Belgian, Quebec, African or Maghrebian accents, are today stigmatized by the establishment, consciously or not. Some because they do not correspond to the imposed canon, others because they refer to ethnic, social or religious prejudices.
“There are social connotations which are linked to the different pronunciations,” explains linguist Philippe Blanchet, author of the book. Discrimination: fight glottophobia, published in 2016. Depending on the type of pronunciation you have, you will be considered unreliable, not serious, poorly educated, not presentable enough for customers and the public. You will give a bad image of the company or the service, and suddenly, this argument is used not to hire you. ”
According to Philippe Blanchet, there is moreover a “hierarchy” in the accents, some being more discriminated than others.
“If you have an English accent, that’s fine. It is even rather chic. If you have a southern accent, that’s pretty cool, but it’s not serious. The Belgian accent is very badly perceived in France. But the most frowned upon are the popular accents of the northern half of France, the workers’ accents, the rural accents, as well as the accents of the suburbs. ”
It is even worse for certain foreign accents, in particular from the Maghreb or West Africa, adds the linguist. Because we then rely on other forms of discrimination, which go beyond speaking.
And the Quebec accent? “It’s a bit like the southern accents,” replies Mr. Blanchet. Most people find him nice, funny, but obviously he’s not serious. ”
To prohibit is to advance
French opinion is, however, more and more sensitive to this question. French Prime Minister Jean Castex was appointed despite his strong Midi accent. “This would never have happened 20 years ago,” notes the linguist.
The new law on glottophobia remains nonetheless “essential”, he says, if we want to get rid of this bad fold. Because its dissuasive effect will ensure that we can no longer trivialize the problem. If the bill were validated, discrimination by accent would join the long list of discriminations that already appear in the Penal Code. The offense would be punishable by three years in prison and a fine of 45,000 euros (CAN $ 70,000).
“From the moment it is prohibited, that there is a red line that should not be crossed, we can initiate a change in mentalities,” said Christophe Euzet.
A law would also facilitate statistical monitoring, “testing” and more concrete measures, both in education and in communications. The mainstream media could in particular be invited to sign a charter as part of the audiovisual reform, which is planned in France next year.
Perhaps then we will start to hear Quebec accents on French TV.
What about us?
The phenomenon of glottophobia also exists in Quebec. In an INRS study published in 2006, 67% of anglophones in the province, 61% of francophones and 52% of allophones declared that they had been the victims of discrimination related to language or accent.
“The discrimination is linguistic, but behind that, there are other more important forms of discrimination, which mainly relate to the origin. We associate prejudices with it. We will discriminate because such and such an accent corresponds to such and such a region, if this region has negative connotations, ”underlines Christophe Bergeron, professor at the Faculty of Education at the University of Ottawa, who has worked on this issue.
Mr. Bergeron points out that in Canada, the Human Rights Act does not provide protection against discrimination based on language. Such protections do not exist in Ontario either. In Quebec, however, language is recognized as a ground of discrimination by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Which does not mean that the problem does not exist.
In its study, the INRS specifies that “linguicism (discrimination due to the mother tongue of individuals) seems to be one of the major sources of discrimination in Quebec, a finding which testifies to the history of linguistic tensions in this province”.