In the face of new census data that 23% of Canadians are immigrants, Quebec Premier Francois Legault recently warned that the province remains committed to finding a balance between welcoming newcomers and fighting the decline of the French language.
As a researcher in French literature and political theory, I believe that Legault’s thinking is wrong. French is not a language of provincialism. Authors like Victor Hugo, George Sand and Alphonse de Lamartine—all studied as part of the Quebec common core—defended universalism, not xenophobia.
There were two French revolutions: that of 1789, when freedom and national sovereignty occupied the popular imagination, and the lesser known one of 1848, when justice and human solidarity were imposed. French owes its modern and democratic form to the heroes of this second revolution.
The first triumphs of early 1848 — the ousting of the bourgeois monarch Louis-Philippe and the proclamation of the Second Republic — captivated French Canadians, young and old. Politician Louis-Joseph Papineau, leader of the Parti patriote du Bas-Canada, praised the “truths” preached across the Atlantic and 100 young people gathered in a Montreal hotel shouting: “Liberty, equality, fraternity!
In 1848 Sand wrote:
“I dream of an ideal fraternity, and I believe that I will cease to live the day when I do not wish it on humanity.”
The inclusive nature of his political ideal has meant a shift in human rights discourse since the first French Revolution in 1789. He quickly transcended national borders. Canadians of diverse ancestry celebrated the events in Paris where “Vive l’Italie!” was heard. and “Long live Ireland!” simultaneously with the French national anthem.
First “red scare”
But the French and those abroad were divided on the degree of radicalism of the second revolution. It was Canada’s first red alert, nearly 100 years before the Cold War-era aversion to communism that prevailed in North America.
The fierce defenders of the French working class – Sand, Alexandre Ledru-Rollin and Louis Blanc among them – clashed with moderates like de Lamartine.
“M. Papineau is the Ledru-Rollin of Canada,” proclaimed a Montreal newspaper in May 1848 after praising Lamartine’s promises to the bourgeoisie.
The second French Revolution turned grim after a three-day insurrection in June 1848, when more than 4,000 French workers died and 15,000 were arrested. While most Canadian newspapers blamed the bloodshed on communist ideology and preached a moderate stance aligned with British conservatism, one journalist explained how Canada’s youth were “always crying with all who suffered.”
What about Quebec conservatism today?
Legault’s use of the French language as a tool to limit immigration is a historical reversal.
Montreal youth shouting “Liberty, equality, fraternity! in 1848 wanted to open doors to the world, not close them. They understood freedom as a single component of human rights: justice and solidarity became necessary complements after the violence of the 1789 revolution.
In 1849, writing from exile as Hugo, Blanc reminded the French that his seemingly new socialist ideas repeated an old Christian motto: “The first must be the servant of the last.”
The government of Quebec does not need to be “a servant of the least” if, as it claims, the French language is no longer on the front line. But his use of language as an excuse for xenophobia is historically ignorant.
Despite my personal love for the French language, I see no value in students watching more French-dubbed films or being required to take additional French classes at public colleges in Quebec.
Legault fails to understand that French has been the language of human rights for hundreds of years. It fails to capitalize on the fact that Canadian youth, outraged by global indifference to ongoing existential crises and in solidarity with international protest movements, might be drawn to French, not English, for that very reason. same.
It is difficult to find in the history of English-language media an equivalent of the French novelist “J’accuse! forum published in Dawn that railed against anti-Semitism, nor a revolution where poets became politicians overnight.
Read more: Reading French literature in times of terror
French authors have always led the world in making eloquent and sincere calls for justice. To read Hugo or Sand is to discover new hemispheres in the human heart.
To restore the French language to its rightful place as a spokesperson for human rights, the Quebec government must promote it as a tool for civic education based on human rights and not as a compulsory language. Welcoming immigrants would therefore not be an obstacle to the French language or to Francophone culture, it would be an advantage.