Last week, France's National Assembly voted overwhelmingly to extend for three more months the state of emergency that grants extraordinary powers to the state to combat terrorist threats. It was a mere formality that cleared the way for politicians to debate matters considered worth debating.
That would be French spelling. News that the publishers of French school manuals will next fall adopt spelling revisions first proposed in 1990 for 2,400 words – revisions that had been largely swept under the rug – unleashed a war of words between politicians on the left and right, and between the Socialist education minister and the head of the Académie française. The academy, the ultimate French authority on all things linguistic, denied that it had approved the changes 26 years ago, and repudiated their "exhumation" now. That sparked cries of "astonishment" from a besieged education minister and charges of revisionist history against the academy. Thus was born l'affaire circonflexe.
Language is an obsession for the French, as integral to the country's identity as the values of liberté, égalité and fraternité that embody the modern republic. Since its creation by Cardinal Richelieu in 1635, the Académie has been entrusted with ensuring the "immortality" of the French language. Its 40 members, who serve for life, are known as "the immortals."
History, however, is littered with dead languages. And French, whose elevated degree of difficulty is a source of pride for those who master it, but a source of frustration for those who seek to learn it, does not have history on its side. Calls to simplify what are considered archaic spellings and other fétiches of the language have always been predicated on the need to make French easier to learn in order to keep it alive.
So it was that Socialist prime minister Michel Rocard, presiding over a linguistic advisory body, came up with proposals in 1990 to axe the circumflex (the pointy hat that adorns vowels in certain words) on the letters "i" and "u." Most hyphenated words (such as croque-monsieur) would lose their hyphen. Accents would change their slant on the "e" in dozens of words to reflect modern pronunciations. Spelling "anomalies" would be suppressed, turning oignon (onion) into ognon.
The then-head of the Académie française seemed to approve the changes, but some of its most prominent members quickly denounced them. While advocates pushed for their uptake, the changes never went mainstream. The media never adopted them. Nudges from the education ministry were ignored by teachers and publishers. (Since 2009, Quebec's education ministry has deemed both ways of spelling acceptable, but teachers still give priority to the traditional orthography.)
What prompted text-book publishers to make the switch now was an official bulletin from the French education ministry in November that designated the 1990 proposals as "the reference" for teachers. But the Académie's permanent secretary, historian Hélène Carrère d'Encausse, went on the offensive last week to deny the immortals ever endorsed them: "The language is a living organism, and is not to be submitted, by force, to a political decision from on high."
Opponents of the changes embraced a Twitter hashtag, #JeSuisCirconflexe, a riff on the #JeSuisCharlie hashtag expressing solidarity with the victims of last year's terrorist attack on the Charlie Hebdo newspaper. That was a bit ironic, considering that circumflexes are an endangered species on social media – an extra keystroke not considered worth the effort, or proof that millions of French students simply do not know how to spell in the first place.
Indeed, l'affaire circonflexe has exposed the deep social divisions in France between the elites, whose children attend the best schools, and the country's fast-growing underclass, whose children often leave school unable to spell adequately. Reformists argue that the language needs to be simplified to foster literacy; traditionalists counter that the failure of immigrants and low-income students to read and write well underscores the need for more rigorous teaching.
"France's tragedy is a growing inequality born of the collapse of our education system," Ms. Carrère d'Encausse told Le Figaro newspaper. "The problem is not to offer facility to students, to preserve or not the circumflex, but to totally review the education system."
Language is no trivial matter, of course. But far more distressing concerns preoccupy the French – the threat of terrorism and how to respond to it without surrendering democratic values. L'affaire circonflexe perhaps says more about a need to reaffirm a rattled French identity than the fate of any pointy hat.