Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
The region of Alsace borders Germany and Switzerland, while the region of Lorraine borders Alsace, Germany and Luxembourg. Elsasserditsch is the German dialect spoken in Alsace, while Lothringer Platt (or Francique) is spoken in the Moselle province of Lorraine, especially around the town Thionville. The written form of these dialects is High German. The total population of Alsace was 1.9 million in 2014 and that of Lorraine 2.3 million. According to France’s Culture Ministry, there are 650,000 Alsatian dialect speakers, as well as 230,000 people who speak it occasionally. It is estimated that as much as a half of the population speaks German dialect. All also speak French, and some speak High German.
There are significant numbers of new immigrants from North Africa and Turkey in the cities of Strasbourg and Mulhouse.
Alsace and Lorraine were ruled by the Alemanni and then by the Franks in the fifth century after the fall of the Roman Empire. The modern language has evolved from Alemanni. Being on the border between French and German-speaking lands, Alsace and Lorraine have been included in one or other group of states for hundreds of years. Lorraine, being further west, has had more French influence.
Alsace was at the heart of the Protestant Reformation. Both Luther and Calvin spent time in Strasbourg and made many converts. But the region became one of the main battlegrounds of the Thirty Years’ War between Protestant and Roman Catholic kings. In the Treaty of Westphalia in 1649 Alsace became a French protectorate but its Protestants were guaranteed religious freedom by the Edict of Nantes. In 1681 Alsace became a province of France, but it kept its language and links with the Germanic states. In 1793 the revolutionary French government introduced universal free education with French as the language of instruction. French control and the sense of French nationality increased in the nineteenth century with universal suffrage in 1848 and the building of the canals and railways.
But France lost the Franco-Prussian war in 1871 and Prussia took Alsace and the one third of Lorraine which was German-speaking, the Moselle area. They were incorporated into the new united German Empire. The French language was banned and was replaced with High German. There was a policy of assimilation with the rest of Germany. Those who spoke French moved to France or emigrated to the United States. Industrial development was strong. Many new literary and artistic societies were formed and publications launched in the 1890s. The Alsatian theatre was founded by Gustave Stosskopf in 1898. In 1911 Alsace gained a measure of autonomy with its own provincial parliament.
Alsace and Lorraine were part of the front line in World War I and after the war they were returned to France. The teaching of the German language was banned and Germans who had moved to the region since 1871 were deported to Germany. The French authorities adopted an assimilation policy for the region. In World War II, Alsace was again ruled by Germany. Alsace and Lorraine were incorporated into different German administrative areas and subjected to Nazi repression. The property and land of French-speakers was confiscated. High German was the only language allowed. The only Nazi extermination camp in France was built at Struthof in Alsace.
Alsace and Lorraine were returned to France in ruins in 1944. The autonomy movement was discredited by the wartime collaboration with the Nazis of some of its leaders. The French language was imposed once more. From 1945 to 1984 newspapers were not allowed to have more than 25 per cent German content.
It was 20 years before German began to be taught in schools and then only when parents and teachers agreed. In 1982 the teaching of Alsace dialect was encouraged but rarely practised in nursery schools, and state funding for German teaching was made available for all school levels and university. A decade after parents started requesting it, the first bilingual education, with equal time for German and French instruction, was launched in Alsace in 1991 at nursery level by the association ABCM-Zweisprachigkeit and by another private school. In 1992 state schools began bilingual German and French classes. A four-year contract to extend the system was concluded for 1994–8 and this was renewed for 2000–6. In Moselle ABCM launched its two bilingual schools in 1997 in the town of Sarreguemines.
Prosperity increased in the region with new technology industries and tourism taking the place of declining iron, steel and coal industries. Germans, French, Swiss and new minorities have immigrated to the region on account of its prosperity. Alsatians and Lorrainians also commute to work in Germany, Switzerland and Luxembourg. Attempts to create a Rhineland community met with partial success, as Alsatians and Lorrainians have a tradition of feeling separate.
By the 1990s this began to produce a backlash against Europeanism with increasing support for the extreme right, anti-European party, Front National (FN). In the 1995 presidential elections FN leader Jean-Marie Le Pen polled 25 per cent of the vote in Alsace-Lorraine. In the 2002 presidential elections FN polled 23.5 per cent, but the total extreme right vote was 28 per cent, with the addition of former FN deputy Bruno Mégret’s splinter party, Mouvement National Républicain.
Unrest by new immigrants in the towns of Alsace and Lorraine helped build support for extreme-right politics. In the 2004 regional elections, far right parties retained their 28 per cent of the vote in Alsace, while parliamentary right-wing parties gained 34 per cent. In Lorraine, the extreme right won 20 per cent and the parliamentary right-wing parties 37.5 per cent. The Front National polled 18.5 per cent in Alsace and 17.5 per cent in Lorraine.
Neither Elsasserditsch nor Lothringer Platt languages have any legal status – and their use has been in decline for decades, with only a very small proportion of children being able to speak them. However, nursery education in the dialects has started a revival. Nevertheless, the language of public administration, the law courts and most media is French. Most education is also in French. German is used as a teaching medium at some non-bilingual nursery schools and as a subject at most primary and secondary schools. Dialect tends to be replaced by German in the upper years of primary school.
Mass protests were provoked in 2014 by the French government’s announcement that Alsace, Lorraine and Champagne-Ardenne would be merged into a single administrative region, Grand Est – a move interpreted by demonstrators as intended to further erode their regional and linguistic identities through centralization. Despite their resistance, Grand Est came into being on 1 January 2016, superseding the previously separate structures of the three regions. Since then however, there have been proposals to create a ‘Territorial Assembly’ for Alsace to maintain its identity as a distinct political entity.
Updated September 2018
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