As every student of French knows, the traditional rule is that “the masculine form takes precedence over the feminine”. So an adjective that refers jointly to masculine and feminine nouns—des garçons et des filles intelligents (clever boys and girls)—agrees only with the masculine one (adding just an “s” in the plural, not an “es”). This principle has long been implicit in the use of masculine nouns to cover feminine cases too. Un sénateur (senator) traditionally refers to both men and women who occupy the office.
Such practices vex feminists. A group of 314 teachers issued a public appeal a few months ago against a grammatical tradition that amounts to “the domination of one sex over the other” and makes women invisible. Eliane Viennot, who describes herself as a literature professeuse (professor), recalled that such rules were codified only in the 19th century. In 1480 Madeleine de France, Charles VII’s daughter, described herself as an autrice (female author). The pre-Napoleonic French language referred to a charpentière (female carpenter) or doctoresse (woman of letters). Indeed, Quebec recommended the use of feminised forms for job titles in 1979. Today, French advocates of gender-neutral language would also prefer the adjective to obey a rule of proximity, and agree with the gender of the nearest noun in a sentence. In the example above, this would lead to des garçons et des filles intelligentes.
Needless to say, the linguistic purists are aghast. Last October the Académie Française, founded by Cardinal Richelieu in 1635, issued a “formal warning” against l’écriture inclusive, calling it an “aberration” and declaring the French language in “mortal danger”. Such was the controversy that Edouard Philippe, the prime minister, whose government has made sex equality a priority, felt obliged to step in. Affirming that he was all for the “battle against stereotypes”, he called nonetheless for a compromise. All public-sector job titles would henceforth be feminised. So a female chef de cabinet (head of staff) is now une cheffe, and a female préfet (prefect) is une préfète.
Yet Mr Philippe drew the line at the encroaching dot. He ruled that all official job adverts should call for “un candidat” or “une candidate”, so as to encourage both male and female applicants. All references to candidat.e.s, however, will remain strictly interdit.e.s.