PARIS – Perhaps France was always going to have a hard time with nonbinary pronouns. Its language is intensely gender-specific and fiercely protected by august authorities. Still, the furor provoked by a prominent dictionary’s inclusion of the pronoun “iel” has been remarkably virulent.
Le Petit Robert, rivaled only by the Larousse in linguistic authority, chose to add “iel” – a gender-neutral merging of the masculine “il” (he) and the feminine “elle” (she) – to its latest online edition. Jean-Michel Blanquer, the education minister, was not amused.
“You must not manipulate the French language, whatever the cause,” he said, expressing support for the view that “iel” was an expression of “wokisme.”
Blanquer is seemingly convinced of a sweeping American “woke” assault on France aimed at spreading racial and gender discord over French universalism. Last month he told the daily Le Monde that a backlash against what he called woke ideology was the main factor in the 2016 victory of Donald Trump.
In this instance, however, he was joined by Brigitte Macron, the first lady. “There are two pronouns: he and she,” she declared. “Our language is beautiful. And two pronouns are appropriate.”
The Robert defines “iel” (pronounced roughly “yell”) as “a third person subject pronoun in the singular and plural used to evoke a person of any gender.”
Charles Bimbenet, its director-general, posted a statement rejecting the minister’s charge of militancy. “The mission of the Robert is to observe the evolution of a French language that is in motion and diverse, and take account of that,” he wrote. “To define the words that describe the world is to aid better comprehension of it.”
France, a country where it is illegal for the state to compile racial statistics, is particularly on edge over the rise of US gender and race politics. President Emmanuel Macron has warned that “certain social science theories entirely imported from the United States” may be a threat. Blanquer has identified “an intellectual matrix” in US universities bent on undermining a supposedly colorblind French society of equal men and women through the promotion of identity-based victimhood.
This is the backdrop to the “iel” explosion, which left-wing newspaper Libération described under the headline “The Highway to Iel.”
Neologisms like “antivax” and “passe sanitaire” (health pass) do enter the lexicon with some regularity, but the Académie française, founded in 1634 to protect the French language, remains a vigilant guardian of linguistic purity against what one member called “brainless Globish” a couple of years ago.
Lilian Delhomme, 24, a gender-nonconforming student of international affairs at the University of Paris 8 who has been using the pronoun “iel” for about a year, was appalled by Brigitte Macron’s statement.
“This for me was very violent,” Delhomme said in an interview. “Coming from the first lady, from a woman, from a French teacher, from someone whose relationship went against many societal norms, it made me lose hope.”
Delhomme was referring to the fact that the relationship between Macron, 68, and President Macron, 43, began in high school when he was a teenager and she was his drama teacher, married with three children.
Explaining the decision to switch to “iel,” Delhomme said: “Life was difficult enough being gay, and I didn’t want to add to that, but gradually I evolved, and I understood that my identity was not that of a man.”
This year, Delhomme informed fellow students and faculty of the new pronoun preference. To little avail. “Everyone still calls me ‘he,’ which is pretty disappointing for political science students,” said Delhomme, whose professor asked, “What on earth is that?” when Delhomme used “iel” on a résumé.
For some time, a movement for “inclusive writing” has battled the linguistic establishment in France. It is broadly an attempt to wean the French language of its male bias, including the rule that when it comes to the choice of pronouns for groups of women and men, the male form takes precedence over the female, and when it comes to adjectives describing mixed gatherings, they take the masculine form.
The Académie rebuffed such attempts earlier this year. Its secretary-in-perpetuity, Hélène Carrère d’Encausse, said that inclusive writing, even if it seemed to bolster a movement against sexist discrimination, “is not only counterproductive for that cause but harmful to the practice and intelligibility of the French language.”
Gwenaëlle Perrier, who teaches gender studies at the University of Paris 13, said that the sacredness of the French language had become an acceptable terrain on which to take on feminism now that others were frowned upon.
“To attack inclusive writing, and the pronoun ‘iel’, is an easy way for anti-feminists to express themselves,” she said. “Much more discreet than attacking women or trans people directly.”
François Jolivet, a center-right lawmaker, has led the campaign against the Robert’s decision to admit “iel” to its dictionary. He wrote to the Académie française demanding that it take up the matter.
“If you have not already done so, this choice of the Petit Robert will become the mark of the entry into our language of so-called ‘inclusive’ writing, and will no doubt be the precursor of the advent of woke ideology that is destructive of our values,” he wrote.
Jolivet continued: “The solitary campaign of the Petit Robert is a manifest ideological intrusion that undermines our shared language and its influence. This kind of initiative results in a defiled language which divides its users rather than unites them.”
In an interview, Jolivet argued that when “you legitimize words, you legitimize thoughts.” He added: “These Robert lexicographers are introducing a word that barely exists in our country. That is militancy; that is not doing their jobs.”
Describing himself as a tolerant man convinced that “iel” was the wrong battle, he said that France was now the preferred target of what he called “promoters of woke culture.” France, he insisted, will never accept that human beings be corralled into sectarian communities, be they of race or gender.
“Here, we have universalism,” he said. “The intimate inner self must never take precedence over the individual as a member of the collectivity that is the nation.”
The problem with this argument is that the French model, as interpreted by Jolivet, appears to “corral” citizens into certain binary gender identities by denying that other possibilities exist.
Most Americans would be astonished to discover that what Jolivet called the woke movement – which he described as an insult to everyone else who is “supposedly asleep” – is really about attacking France. Equally, few French people outside a bubble of universities, media and politics ever discuss “le wokisme” or preferred pronouns in their daily lives.
Still, at a time when the US State Department has issued its first passport with an X gender marker for nonbinary, intersex and gender-nonconforming persons, the outcry over “iel” suggests how sensitive France and the US have become over their divergent approaches to gender and race.
The differences are not only international. The Larousse dictionary derided the Robert initiative, dismissing “iel” as a “pseudo pronoun.”
Bernard Cerquiglini, a lexicographer at Larousse, told the newspaper Le Figaro that “pronouns have not changed since the fourth century.” As for the masculine form, “it plays a generic role, that’s just the way it is, and has been since vulgate Latin.”
It is unclear where the Robert-Larousse standoff will lead or what the Académie française might do. Meanwhile, Blanquer, the education minister, is not about to use the nonbinary pronoun.
As he told the French National Assembly in 2017, “There is only one French language, only one grammar and only one Republic.”
[This article originally appeared in The New York Times.]