“Like the report of 1863, Grégoire’s seems to have taken an optimistic view. Many of the provincial assemblies discussing the cahiers of 1789 had encountered linguistic problems, and the great survey set on foot revealed more areas where French was hardly spoken than places where it was known.
This was serious. Linguistic diversity had been irrelevant to administrative unity. But it became significant when it was perceived as a threat to political that is, ideological-unity. All citizens had to understand what the interests of the Republic were and what the Republic was up to, Barthélémy de Lanthemas told the Convention in December 1792. Otherwise, they could not participate, were not equipped to participate in it. A didactic and integrative regime needed an effective vehicle for information and propaganda; but it could hardly have one if the population did not know French. In November 1792, just a month before Lanthemas’s speech, the Minister of Justice had set up an office to translate laws and decrees into the German, Italian, Catalan, Basque, and Lower Breton languages. This could be no more than an expedient.
The ideal of the Revolution lay in uniformity and the extinction of particularisms. “Reaction … speaks Bas-Breton,” insisted the Jacobins. “The unity of the Republic demands the unity of speech …. Speech must be one, like the Republic.” Most agreed with Lanthemas that the various tongues “have no kind of distinction and are simply remnants of the barbarism of past ages.” Grégoire put it best when he called for the elimination of “the diversity of primitive idioms that extended the infancy of reason and prolonged obsolescent prejudices.” The Convention agreed with Grégoire. It acted to abolish dialects, and to replace them with the speech of the Republic, “the language of the Declaration of Rights.” It decreed that throughout the Republic children must learn “to speak, read and write in the French language,” and that everywhere “instruction should take place only in French.” All this was easier said than done. The policy foundered. If revolutionary patriotism spoke French, it often spoke it badly. And where the people did not speak French, revolutionaries who wanted to reach the people addressed them in their local tongue. What survived from the shipwreck was the principle.
A state unconcerned about linguistic diversity, a catholic cultural ideal largely indifferent to the problem, were replaced by an ideology that embraced unity as a positive good and recognized language as a significant factor in achieving it. As the Cahors Committee of Primary Education declared in 1834, “the political and administrative unity of the kingdom urgently requires the unity of language in all its parts.” In any case, the committee added, the southern dialects were inferior – a view that earlier ages had developed more discreetly, that the revolutionaries had trumpeted, and that didactic propaganda henceforth helped to spread.
Teaching the people French was an important facet in “civilizing” them, in their integration into a superior modern world. Félix Pécaut, apostle of progressive education under the Third Republic, expressed the Fabian view in 1880 that Basque would soon give way to “a higher level of civilization.” And the literary critic Francisque Sarcey had even greater pretensions: the French, all the French, must come to speak the same language, “that of Voltaire and the Napoleonic Code; all must be able to read the same newspaper, published in Paris, which brings the ideas worked out in the great city.” There can be no clearer expression of imperialistic sentiment: a white man’s burden of Francophony, whose first conquests were to be right at home. That they were seen as conquests can be perceived in Henri Baudrillart’s remark that Oc was “giving way to the ascendancy of the victor’s speech.” The local folk agreed: “French is for us a language imposed by right of conquest,” declared the Marseillais historian François Mazuy. Yet the conquest was slow. Unity was still an aim and a source of concern a century after Grégoire; witness the fears expressed by the Minister of the Interior in 1891 that by continuing to preach in dialect priests “may endanger French unity.” The French God has always been a jealous God. He can be worshiped only in French, as Anatole de Monzie made clear in his famous circular of 1925 defending “the one French language whose jealous cult can never have too many altars.”
By that time, if the jealous cult had not stamped out all competitors, it had at least persuaded many that such competitors had never really existed. As early as 1907 a laureate of the Academy had declared that popular speech and literary language developed from the same source: Old French. In 1966 the head of the Education Ministry’s Service of Pedagogical Research spoke of the promotion of French over Latin in the schools as an affirmation of “the people’s language.” By 1968, when Antoine Prost published his fine history of French education, L’Enseignement en France, 1800-1967 we look in vain for one whisper about the worst problem plaguing schoolteachers through the whole of the nineteenth century: that so many of their pupils did not speak French or spoke it poorly. ”
p. 71-3., – Peasants into Frenchmen, Eugen Weber, 1970.