The appointment of Jean Castex as France’s new prime minister by President Emmanuel Macron launched a flurry of political analysis by the nation’s chattering classes. But it also left many in the nation’s capital shocked because Castex has a Southern accent.
In France, there is officially one right way to speak French and it’s hammered into kids throughout their school years. To deviate from this even the slightest marks you as a “provincial,” or someone from the provinces, aka, everywhere that is not Paris.
France has numerous regional accents, ranging from Brittany in the Northwest to Marseille in South to the Ch’ti in the Northeast. A popular French comedy, “Bienvenue chez les Ch’tis,” played with this notion of odd regional accents.
Notably, that title was translated for English-speaking audiences as, “Welcome to the sticks.” And indeed, that’s often how people with strong Southwestern accents are seen by Parisians: As hillbillies.
Castex was born in the Gers which is in the Southwest of France and is the heart of the Gascony region. More recently, he was mayor of Prades, a village in the Pyrénées-Orientales Department. People in this southwestern region will split hairs and note that there are different regional accents with this territory.
But one thing they will tell you with more than a little pride is that the Southwest was not always part of France. For many centuries, the Southwest was dominated by the Occitan culture and language. That’s the origin of such place-names as Languedoc. (Langue d’Oc or Language of Occitan.) Occitan is a closer cousin to the Catalan language than it is to French.
The Occitan region was semi-autonomous from the Kingdom of France until the 13th century. Under the pretext that there was a religious heresy (the Cathars) running rampant in the South, some northern nobles received the blessing of the Pope to mount an army and head South where they proceeded to slaughter thousands of suspected heretics in Game-of-Thrones style.
Over the centuries, the French language and culture were imposed. But versions of the accent endured.
So what does it sound like? Often, these Southwestern accents still pronounce many consonants at the end of words and also a bit of a nasal sound. That’’s a big no-no in French. But in Toulouse, for instance, you may hear someone pronounce “du pain” (just “pah” in French) as “du pang.”
As such, Southwesterners have more separation between words, giving it almost a Spanish inflection. Northerners, particularly Parisians, tend to run their words together, one of the reasons learning French for anglophones is so challenging.
So that’s what shocked Parisians heard when Castex took to the microphone last week to introduce himself. And almost immediately, news channels took the opportunity to explain the oddness of his speech to confused French.
“It’s an accent that we are not used to hearing in the upper echelons of the government,” explained a narrator on a segment produced by BFMTV. “A singing tone that takes its roots in the south of France.”
“Elsewhere in France, Jean Castex’s accent may have surprised or even been mocked, as it did not correspond to the standard,” the announcer continues.
In fact, Nadine Marono, a former minister in the conservative government of President Nicholas Sarkozy, stepped in the merde when she said on a broadcast: “I love the accent of Jean Castex. I have the impression of being on vacation.” (Parisians love to head South to the warm Mediterranean beaches in the summer.)
However, Anne-Elisabeth Moutet, a columnist for The Telegraph, argued that Castex’s accent could be an asset for Macron.
Meanwhile, Castex’s elevation coincides with a kind of renaissance for Occitan culture and language. In Toulouse, the plaza in front of the Capitole is adorned with a giant, gold Occitan cross etched into the stones. The Toulouse city center street signs are now in French and Occitan. And since 2009, announcements in the city’s metro are made in both languages as well.
This revival of Occitan culture had been building for several years but got perhaps its biggest symbolic and political boost in 2016. President François Hollande, in an effort to shift some power away from Paris, announced that the French government would fuse regional governments to create fewer but larger administrative zones. In France, there is the municipal government, and then the departements which are a bit like large counties, and then the regional governments that are somewhat like states. In the South, the regions of Languedoc-Roussillon and Midi-Pyrénées were merged, creating a territory slightly larger than Ireland whose population included 6 million people.
This new mega-region held a consultation vote to pick a name. The first choice of residents was clear: Occitanie. For the first time in history, and almost 800 years after the brutal religious crusade against the heretics, Occitanie is the name of a geographic territory.
Carole Delga, a member of the Socialist Party, was elected the first president of this new region in January 2016. A year after her election, I went to visit her in the administrative headquarters of the new region, a modern brick building that overlooked the Garonne River. A large red flag with a yellow Occitan cross in the center flapped in the wind. A stone sign on the corner outside designates this as the Hotel de Région Occitanie in French, and below that in Occitan it reads Ostal de Region Occitania.
Born in 1971, Delga grew up in a small village called Martes-Tolosane. The town is known for its pottery community and as an archaeological site of the Gallo-Roman era. Delga’s mother and grandmother raised on a small farm before she made her way into politics and eventually a member of Hollande’s cabinet. After she resigned to run for president of the new region, the Paris-based Liberation newspaper interviewed her and couldn’t help but remark upon her “pronounced” accent. The paper also noted that Hollande had nicknamed her the “accent” of the government.
Delga has short, reddish-brown hair and greeted me with a large smile as I awkwardly stumbled through my limited French to ask her about her plans regarding Occitan culture. Shortly after her election, the new region had announced a program to spend €1 million to support teaching and usage of the Occitan language. This included a new government department dedicated to the language, development of Occitan teaching materials for local schools, and creation of media in the Occitan language extending dubbing of TV shows and subtitles in Occitan.
On a personal note, she said she understands conversations in Occitan, but does not speak it fluently. Occitan was the first language of her grandmother and as a child, Delga would speak French to her grandmother and her grandmother would speak Occitan in response, something that they both found amusing and annoying. She wants to see the Occitan culture flourish again, but this carries with it a hint of subversion that might not be immediately obvious.
At the time we spoke, just across the border in Spain, there were rumblings and marches about a move to declare Catalonia’s independence. For hundreds of years, the national French government has fought to forge a single identity, sometimes by force but also by strict cultivation of its language. The French constitution says France is an “indivisible republic”. Back in 1992, European nations came together to create the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, a document to encourage the protection and promotion of regional languages. While France signed the charter, it remains one of only a handful of nations not to formally ratify it, with conservative critics worried such a move would splinter the nation.
So reawakening an ancient culture is delicate business in France, treading on historic fissures that the country has spent centuries trying to close. The fallout from a crusade that raged 800 years ago and that marked the beginnings what became modern France, still echoes across a region that has a long memory and a strong attachment to its past.
“The people are not asking for their independence,” Delga said diplomatically. “But we want to see more expression of the Occitan culture and language. We are different than other regions.”
As for Castex, the real test for how closely he holds onto his roots is when he visits a boulangerie in Paris, and must carefully weigh the political consequences of ordering a pain au chocolat (as it’s called in the North) or a chocolatine.