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French education minister calms nation after spelling reform outcry

media French Education Minister Najat Vallaud-Belkacem with a pupil of a school in Blois. AFP/Guillaume Souvant

France's Education Minister, Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, was obliged to calm the nation's nerves today as reports of a reform of French spelling sent panic across social media and aroused protests from right-wing education campaigners. Reports that schools would stop teaching the use of the circumflex accent and force pupils to spell oignon (onion) without an "i" turned out to be greatly exaggerated.

"I wish to reassure everyone that the circumflex accent will not disappear,' Vallaud-Belkacem declared at a hastily called press conference on Thursday.

She was reacting to a social media hashtag #Jesuiscirconflexe (I am circumflex), furious statements by the hard-right UNI students' union and a self-appointed education "observatory", and media reports that the accent was to be wiped from schoolbooks and that 2,400 other changes to spelling would be enforced, which caused alarm among many French people across the political spectrum.

The education minister, who was already unpopular with the hard right, "thinks she has the right to turn the rules of French spelling on their heads", UNI raged.

But the reform was not Vallaud-Belkacem's idea - it has been in the pipeline for 26 years - and will be optional, not compulsory.

What has actually happened is that all the publishers of France's schoolbooks have decided to include the new spellings as from the beginning of the next academic year, next Autumn.

Some had mentioned them before but not all.

Now pupils will have the choice of using either the old spellings or the new ones and teachers will have to accept either as correct.

What changes have actually been made? Here are some examples:

  • The circumflex accent (^), which has replaced the "s" in many old French words and usually makes no difference to pronunciation, need not be used on "i" and "u", except in words that have homonyms that mean something different, eg (owed) and du (of the);

  • Hyphens need not be used in a number of words, notably ones containing "contre-" (anti-) and "extra-" (extra-), as in extraterrestre (estraterrestrial);

  • Loanwords from other languages, many of them English, can have accents, eg révolver, and their plurals can be French-style, eg matchs (matches);

  • Some spellings can be simplified, eg ognon for oignon (onion), nénufar for nénuphar (water-lily).

Making changes to French spelling were first considered way back in 1989, when the authorities noticed that fewer and fewer people were learning French as a second language and concluded that it should be simplified.

The government of the day formed a committee with representatives of other French-speaking countries, such as Switzerland, Belgium and Quebec in Canada, and the changes were made and accepted by the high council of the French language, the Académie française.

According to the law they have been acceptable in the education system since 1990 but teachers in France have been less than enthusiastic about teaching them, although they have been accepted in the other countries.

Now the schoolbook publishers have all accepted them, they can be used ... but they still do not have to be.

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