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Why comparisons with Wales and Welsh are at the heart of the battle to save the Breton language

27 Mar 2021 5 minutes Read
Picture by Kergourlay (CC BY-SA 4.0).

Welsh and Breton may share a common history, but the contrast in fortunes of the languages over recent years is as stark as that of the colours on the ‘gwenn-ha-du’ flag of our Celtic cousins.

As Wales sets its sights on reaching a million Welsh speakers by the middle of this century, Bretons are attempting to arrest a fall from one million speakers in the middle of the last century to 200,000 today.

This unfavourable comparison is at the heart of the latest battle to save Breton.

Campaigners in Brittany this month set up a petition calling for Breton to receive the same financial support as Welsh, which they believe is around 20 times better funded despite recent cuts.

Remy Penneg of the NHU Brittany citizen media project, which is behind the petition, told Nation.Cymru: “Wales is largely autonomous from London and has important, although still insufficient, powers to manage your own affairs including those over the Welsh language. In Brittany, we don’t have any of those powers.

“The budget of the Welsh government is twenty times superior to that of the administrative region of Brittany – for the same population of 3.3 million people.

“Your government gives around €20 Euro per person, per year to develop Welsh while our administration gives €2,41 to our languages. You can save your language yourselves because you have the powers. Here, it’s Paris that decides everything.”

It was decisions in Paris that sparked two major protests in Brittany and have made the language a key campaign issue for June’s regional elections.

Emmanuel Macron promised to protect the teaching of minority languages during his presidential election campaign, but his government has recently announced plans to cut Breton teaching time in bilingual schools by at least half.

More than 1,500 people demonstrated against the plans in Brest in February, before 5,000 turned out earlier this month in Kemper/Quimper, the cultural if not administrative capital, in the biggest show of support for the language since a 15,000-strong protest in 2003.

Welsh flags could be seen flying at the protest which was supported by France’s biggest trade unions and the regional government as well as Breton cultural associations and pro-Breton political parties.

“The transmission of Breton within families is now almost non-existent so the survival of the language can only be secured through schools and adult education. That’s why activism is essentially concentrated on education,” explained Gael Briand, the editor of le Peuple Breton, a bilingual monthly magazine.

‘Crux’

The latest protest came after Loïg Chesnais-Girard, Brittany’s Socialist Party president whose governing coalition includes Breton nationalists, rejected Paris’ terms for a new agreement on the teaching of Breton and the region’s other official language, gallo.

Macron’s government has proposed to cut funding as part of the agreement, which is negotiated every five years, despite the need to train more teachers to meet growing demand. That would hit ‘Diwans’, the network of Breton language schools which are largely funded by parents but whose teachers are paid for by the state.

“The key is to train the teachers of tomorrow, that’s the crux of the issue,” Chesnais-Girard said last week. “Train teachers to a good level to permit whoever wants to learn to be able to do so and to speak it every day.” The Breton president recently discussed training in a meeting with First Minister Mark Drakeford.

Beyond practical considerations lies a deeply ingrained suspicion of minority languages in France, which was Europe’s most centralised state even before the election of Macron, whose style of government has earned him comparisons with Napoleon.

Chesnais-Girard found it necessary to assure readers of the conservative La Figaro newspaper that “Breton and gallo don’t put the [French] republic in danger. We have 200,000 Breton speakers, 200,000 gallo speakers – they speak French every day.”

‘Want to learn’

Campaigners are now turning their attention to June’s regional elections.

“We and others have managed to make Breton – as well as reunification, a Breton assembly, autonomy and second homes – issues in the campaign,” according to Gael Briand, who is also a councillor with Plaid Cymru’s Breton sister party, the Breton Democratic Union.

Although he cautions all parties talk a good game to Breton voters before forgetting about the issue or even acting against the language at a French level.

“Everyone wants a future for Breton,” Briand told Nation.Cymru. “Those that don’t speak Breton want to learn or want their children to learn it.

“We have a lot to learn from Welsh as an everyday and living language, which is what we hope for Breton. But we are missing something you have: autonomy, legislative power, the power to decide for yourselves.”

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