Wired News
Tuesday, June 17, 1997

Web Anglais? Non, S'il Vous Plait

by Ashley Craddock, craddock@wired.com

When Quebec computer-store owner Morty Grauer got a letter telling him to get rid of his Web page, change it, or else, he rolled over. But he wasn't happy about it.

"I don't need subpoenas, fines, or going to court", Grauer told the Montreal Gazette. "But what gets my goat is when they make me do something. I'm enraged right now. How can they tell you what to do on the Internet?"

But according to the Quebec's Office de la Langue Française, they can do it pretty easily - jurisdictional issues notwithstanding. Because Grauer's Web site was in English, because it was on a Quebecois server, and because it had no French component, his microbytes.com was illegal, plain and simple.

"The Micro-Bytes Web page violated the Charter of the French Language", spokesman Gerald Paquette said Monday. So on 29 May, the OLF sent Grauer a letter, threatening to revoke his certificate of "francization", a legal necessity for businesses with 50-plus employees. Grauer has said he will comply as of 1 July.

Crafted in the pre-Internet 1970s, Quebec's Charter of the French Language stipulates that commercial publications such as catalogs, brochures, leaflets, and commercial directories must be available in French. It also denies English-language education to immigrants, even those from English-speaking countries. (A separate Canadian federal law on bilingualism has a much more limited scope, requiring the government to publish information in both English and French.)

In the separationist furor that has raged over Quebec for decades, the charter has been a highly controversial bulwark against anglicization and cultural dilution. In Montreal, large businesses are bilingual. On the streets, English words are seldom displayed. In homes and schools, the phrase, "le weekend", common parlance in France, is almost never heard.

But whether or not the 20-year-old charter will have any teeth in the age of the Internet and free trade remains unclear.

Although the charter has been relatively successful in terms of maintaining linguistic purity, its economic effects have been harsh: An estimated 300,000 residents and 1,000 businesses have left the province since the law was passed. And the Internet is expected to exact a high toll for such linguistic balkanization: An estimated 90 percent of online communications are in English, only 2 percent in French.

In France itself, where linguistic purity campaigns have recently taken on some degree of political chic, language activists have sued three sites under a 1994 law that bans single-language advertising in any language but French. The suits, which would have tested the law's application to Web sites for the first time, were dismissed last week on a technicality.

In the free-speech-happy Internet, however, a four-year-old United Nations ruling may prove the most ominous indicator for attempts to enforce language purity: After reviewing the case of an English-speaking Canadian forced to call his funeral home a "salon funeraire", The UN's Human Rights Council found that Quebec's French charter violates the free-speech provision of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Still, the Office de la Langue Francaise is determined to hold the linguistic line.

"Quebec wants to be a player in the global market, but there's a real chance it will erode our sense of language, of identity", Paquette said. "It's the same thing with the Internet: We feel threatened by it. It gives us the possibility of communicating with French speakers in France, Belgium, Switzerland, and North Africa, but English is the lingua franca of the Web. If we don't enforce this law, that'll only be more true in the future."

Copyright © 1997 by Wired Ventures Inc. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.