Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
The Valle d’Aosta borders Switzerland and France. The total population of the Valle d’Aosta is 120,000. Franco-Provençal is the main non-Italian indigenous language, spoken by some 50,000-70,000 people. Indigenous French-speakers are a smaller minority. Walser (a German dialect) is also spoken, and new immigrants include Spanish and Portuguese. There are distinct Italian dialect speakers of Piedmontese, Calabrian, Veneto and Sardo. The majority of the population is bilingual or trilingual or quadrilingual.
French features more strongly as a second language with Italian and Italian dialects than Franco-Provençal. According to a 2002 survey by the Fondation Emile Chanoux, 23.5 per cent of the population speak Italian, French and Franco-Provençal, while another 12.7 per cent speak Italian, French, Franco-Provençal and Piedmontese. A total of 55.4 per cent of the population speak Franco-Provençal with other languages, while a total of 75 per cent speak French and 96 per cent speak Italian.
Franco-Provençal is spoken in three areas of Italy: the Valle d’Aosta, some alpine valleys in the Province of Turin in Piedmont (Val Sangone, Valle di Susa, Valle Cenischia, Valle di Viù, Valle di Ala, Val Grande, Valle di Locana, Valle di Piantonetto, Val Soana) and the Communes of Celle San Vito and Faeto in the Province of Foggia in Apulia.
There is old and new industry, iron, steel and chemicals, and year-round tourism as well as niche agriculture.
The area was Celtic and then conquered by the Romans. A century after the fall of the Roman Empire the Valle d’Aosta came under Frankish rule and the vulgar Latin language of the inhabitants took in French influence evolving into Franco-Provençal, or valdôtain or nosta moda. There are declarations in this language from the thirteenth century. This variant of Provençal only remains in the Aosta Valley, having died out in France and Switzerland.
From 1084 until Italy became a republic, the Valle d’Aosta was ruled by the House of Savoy. In 1191 it was granted autonomy with its own government, laws and finances, a situation which endured for seven centuries. French became the language of most official transactions from the thirteenth century. The region traded with French-speaking Switzerland and France and Franco-Provençal was less easily understood there. In 1539 French became the official language of France and in 1561 of Savoy, replacing Latin. However, in 1563 Savoy gained independence from France and the capital moved to Turin. Over time the ducal court and educated classes dropped French in favour of Piedmontese and then Italian. In 1773 the Valle d’Aosta’s autonomy was rendered ineffective and rule was direct from Turin. The region was part of the French Empire from 1804 to 1814 when it was returned to Savoy. The Provinces of Nice and Savoy were ceded to France by the Duke of Savoy, following a plebiscite in favour of this in 1860, but more particularly to gain French support for Italian unification. The Duke Victor Emmanuel became king of the newly created Italy. The Aostans, who also wanted to join France, were not consulted and became part of Italy.
Italian was imposed as the language of the Valle d’Aosta in administration, law and education, although only 18 per cent in the town of Aosta spoke the language. The French language was banned from schools in 1879 and from law courts in 1880. Two-thirds of Aostans left for France and were replaced by Italians. Industrialization, particularly iron, steel and chemicals, and the advent of the railways increased the Italianization of the region. But French-speakers set up organizations to protect their language and began to press for autonomy.
In 1919 Aostans sent a delegation to Bern to ask to be accepted into the Swiss Confederation, but they were refused. In 1923 the Ligue valdôtain presented a petition to Italy’s Fascist leader Benito Mussolini requesting autonomy. This led to severe repression and a determination by the Fascists to eradicate French and Franco-Provençal from the region. French was banned from schools, law courts, administration and public life. The newspapers Le Duché d’Aoste, Le Pays d’Aost and La Patrie valdôtaine were closed and use of French in the press banned. Place names were changed from French to Italian in 1939. Plans to change 20,000 family names were not carried out on account of the start of World War II.
Aostans were active in the wartime resistance. One of the leaders was lawyer and writer Emile Chanoux, who was captured and killed by the Fascists in 1944. The Union Valdôtaine (UV) was set up in 1945 after the war and demanded federal status within a French or Swiss state. This was supported by some 80 per cent of the population. French troops entered the area in 1945 but withdrew when the Italian government set up an autonomous regime. The UV unsuccessfully attempted to persuade the Western Allies to include bilateral guarantees for the region in the peace treaty with Italy, as had happened in the treaty between Austria and Italy over South Tyrol.
The UV presented their demands for autonomy to the new Italian government, which watered them down and confirmed Valle d’Aosta’s regional autonomy status in 1948. French and Italian are both official languages, except for legal documents which are only in Italian. Administrative posts should be filled by local people or those with knowledge of Italian and French. From 1986 bilingual civil servants have earned more than their unilingual colleagues. In the 1948 Autonomy Statute French is accorded the same amount of teaching hours in school as Italian. In 1994 agreement with central government allowed the Valle d’Aosta regional government to increase teaching staff for bilingual education at secondary school level.
In 1998 the regional government adopted a law protecting the German Walser community. There was no recognition for Franco-Provençal until the Italian law of 1999 setting out the means of protecting linguistic minorities throughout Italy, including the French- and Franco-Provençal-speakers of the Valle d’Aosta. The regional government set up the Bureau régional pour l’ethnologie et la linguistique to protect Franco-Provençal.
Because of the small size of the Valle d’Aosta region and the dominance of Italian, some members of the Italian Parliament have been pressing for the annulment of the 1948 Regional Autonomy Statute, or at least the reduction of state funds for bilingual activities.
As regional laws are drafted initially in Italian and then put into French, most political debate takes place in Italian. Politicians tend to give a brief synopsis in French at the start and continue in Italian. Some regional laws are made available in Franco-Provençal. Court documents are only available in Italian and judgments are given only in Italian. Judges are not guaranteed to know any other language than Italian. Therefore, although French-speakers have the right to be heard in their own language, in practice they would do their case no good in pursuing this right. Testimony can be given in Franco-Provençal if accompanied by a translation in Italian, but again the right is rarely used.
French-speakers can write to the regional administration and the regional office of central government in French, but there is no obligation on these authorities to reply in French. Most of the replies are in Italian. Franco-Provençal-speakers have the right to use their language in unofficial verbal contact with the authorities. Local authorities have complied with the rule that officials should be from the local community as much as possible and should be able to speak French. In practice there are no provisions for the Walser and Piedmontese languages, despite the 1998 law in favour of the Walsers.
There are bilingual signs in Italian and French in local council offices, on road signs, on public notice boards, in tourist-oriented businesses and in hospitals. Utility bills, the telephone directory and product labels are usually only in Italian.
Bilingual education in French and Italian has been available in nursery schools since 1972–3, in primary schools from 1988–9 and secondary schools from 1996–7. In practice secondary education is in Italian and there are some courses given in French. There is no state university in Valle d’Aosta. As state school teachers must have Italian qualifications, teachers are trained in Italian universities in Italian. However, the private sector Università libera della Valle d’Aosta/Université libre de la Vallée d’Aoste opened in 2000. Although officially bilingual, all courses are in Italian except for French-language primary school teacher training.
In 1998 a truly bilingual university was set up in Turin and Grenoble by the Italian and French governments. The Université franco-italienne is intended to be the hub of a network of similar institutions.
Franco-Provençal is offered as an optional extra-curriculum subject at primary schools, but not in nursery or secondary education. Its use in school is in decline. Teacher training courses in Franco-Provençal are offered in the region by the Assessorato Regionale alla Cultura e all’Educazione. In Walser communities standard German is taught at nursery and primary level by Italian teachers.
The Centre d’études franco-provençales (Centre for Franco-Provençal Studies) publishes poetry anthologies and prose works in Franco-Provençal and organizes seminars with other cultural associations.
Attitudes towards speakers of Franco-Provençal are still somewhat contemptuous and the language is often thought, by speakers and non-speakers alike, to be outdated and of little use in the modern world. Franco-Provençal has been overtaken by French and both are being replaced by Italian.
Updated September 2018
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