Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
Bretons are Celts who live in north-west France. The present administrative region of Brittany contains only four of the five historic provinces (départements). The province of Atlantique Maritime and the city Nantes, formerly a capital of Brittany, is now part of the region of Pays de la Loire.
According to the French Culture Ministry, there are 280,000 Breton speakers, as well as over 600,000 people who speak it occasionally. There are four main dialects in the areas of Leon, Treger, Kernev and Gwened. Breton is mostly spoken in the rural areas of central Brittany among older people. However, there are some speakers in the cities of Rennes, Nantes and Paris.
Breton is closest to Welsh among Celtic languages, but it also incorporates elements of Cornish. It has been influenced more by non-Celtic languages than any other in the Celtic language group.
Bretons came to north-west France from Britain in the fifth century as Celtic refugees fleeing the invasions of Angles and Saxons. They brought with them the Welsh and Cornish languages from which Breton evolved as a distinct language.
After centuries of turbulence and conquest by various invaders, the Duchy of Brittany was incorporated into France in 1532. It kept its own laws and taxes until the French revolutionary government abolished them and banned the use of the Breton language in 1790. The nationalist movement which began at the end the nineteenth century was strongly Catholic. The promotion of the Breton language in education and literature and society generally was a central demand of all groups, whether in favour of autonomy within France or independence. Novels and poetry were published in Breton and there were attempts to standardize and modernize the language.
But the movement was discredited and Brittany suffered ferocious, indiscriminate repression after World War II because a few nationalist leaders had collaborated with the Nazis and the Vichy government in the hope of gaining independence for Brittany. That other nationalists formed an important part of the resistance was ignored.
Brittany did not generally share in the post-war economic boom, and many younger Bretons emigrated. The region became militarized with the growth of naval, air force and army bases. French-speaking military personnel came to live in the towns and produced employment for the local population in extra services.
The Deixonne Act of 1951, as well as subsequent decrees and circulars from the Ministry of National Education, allowed a minimal presence of regional languages in public education and left private schools to make their own decisions. The law was not implemented until the early 1960s and it allowed only one hour a week of Breton if local teachers were willing to take the class for no pay. Following the Parisian student riots of 1968, the Breton language was seen as an emblem of freedom. Breton music and dance flourished and became popular in the region and internationally. Breton-language books and dictionaries were published and adult language courses were organized. The Diwan independent schools organization was founded in 1977 to establish a system of Breton education from nursery school level. In 1981 the French government approved the creation of a degree course in Breton at the Université de Haute Bretagne, and in 1985 it approved a teacher training certificate (CAPES) in Breton. In 1999 the Office de la Langue Bretonne/Ofis ar Brezhoneg was set up by the Breton region to promote the use of the language, to provide new words to meet modern developments and to conduct research.
Breton nationalism revived in the 1960s. The militant separatist Front de Libération de la Bretagne (FLB – Breton Liberation Front) was set up in 1963 and various other groups have followed which advocate violent action. The moderate nationalist party, the Union Démocratique Bretonne (UDB – Breton Democratic Union), founded in 1964, advocates autonomy within France, works with mainstream left-wing parties and has achieved some electoral success at the local and regional levels.
Over 200 violent attacks in the four decades from the 1960s on have been mainly attributed to the Armée Révolutionnaire Bretonne (ARB), a banned organization. The attacks did not target people; in fact, two ARB activists died defusing bombs which could have caused injury. But a waitress died as a result of an attack on a fast food restaurant in 2000. Six of the 11 accused were convicted and given jail terms in 2004. Four of them were regarded as terrorists, and two were connected with another separatist and anti-capitalist organization Emgann, formed in 1982.
Four members of the Union Démocratique Bretonne (UDB) were elected to the Breton regional assembly in 2004. The UDB and other parties on the regional council are campaigning for the inclusion of the Atlantique Maritime province, the fifth historic province of Brittany, in the Breton region.
Although there are Breton signs and advertising in public places, TV and radio broadcasts and websites in Breton, and there is an increase in Breton taught in schools, the use of Breton by families has virtually stopped, according to the Office de la Langue Bretonne. Those who use the language most are the older generation. Their traditional Breton is dying out and being replaced by a standardized version of the language, which is taught in school and used in broadcasting and print media. UNESCO now classifies the Breton language as severely endangered, with just 250,000 speakers – though according to some estimates this number is likely reducing by around 10,000 speakers annually as older Breton speakers pass away.
Updated September 2018
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