From the New York Times news section:
When a French dictionary included the gender-nonspecific “iel” for the first time, a virulent reaction erupted over “wokisme” exported from American universities.
France is particularly on edge over the rise of American gender and race politics. Many politicians and academics believe their language and nation are under attack from the United States.
By Roger Cohen and Léontine Gallois
Nov. 28, 2021
PARIS — Perhaps France was always going to have a hard time with nonbinary pronouns. Its language is intensely gender-specific and fiercely protected by august authorities. Still, the furor provoked by a prominent dictionary’s inclusion of the pronoun “iel” has been remarkably virulent.
As opposed to the global spread of American Wokeness, which isn’t “virulent” at all and isn’t provoked by the furor of its proponents.
Le Petit Robert, rivaled only by the Larousse in linguistic authority, chose to add “iel” — a gender-neutral merging of the masculine “il” (he) and the feminine “elle” (she) — to its latest online edition. Jean-Michel Blanquer, the education minister, was not amused.
“You must not manipulate the French language, whatever the cause,” he said, expressing support for the view that “iel” was an expression of “wokisme.”
Mr. Blanquer is seemingly convinced of a sweeping American “woke” assault on France aimed at spreading racial and gender discord over French universalism. Last month he told the daily Le Monde that a backlash against what he called woke ideology was the main factor in the 2016 victory of Donald J. Trump.
In this instance, however, he was joined by Brigitte Macron, the first lady. “There are two pronouns: he and she,” she declared. “Our language is beautiful. And two pronouns are appropriate.”
The Robert defines “iel” (pronounced roughly “yell”) as “a third person subject pronoun in the singular and plural used to evoke a person of any gender.” …
France, a country where it is illegal for the state to compile racial statistics, is particularly on edge over the rise of American gender and race politics. President Emmanuel Macron has warned that “certain social science theories entirely imported from the United States” may be a threat. Mr. Blanquer has identified “an intellectual matrix” in American universities bent on undermining a supposedly colorblind French society of equal men and women through the promotion of identity-based victimhood.
This is the backdrop to the “iel” explosion, which the left-wing newspaper Libération described under the headline “The Highway to Iel.”
Lilian Delhomme, 24, a gender-nonconforming student of international affairs at the University of Paris 8 who has been using the pronoun “iel” for about a year, was appalled by Ms. Macron’s statement.
“This for me was very violent,” Mx. Delhomme said in an interview….
This year, Mx. Delhomme informed fellow students and faculty of the new pronoun preference. To little avail. “Everyone still calls me ‘he,’ which is pretty disappointing for political science students,” said Mx. Delhomme, whose professor asked, “What on earth is that?” when Mx. Delhomme used “iel” on a résumé.
For some time, a movement for “inclusive writing” has battled the linguistic establishment in France. It is broadly an attempt to wean the French language of its male bias, including the rule that when it comes to the choice of pronouns for groups of women and men, the male form takes precedence over the female; and when it comes to adjectives describing mixed gatherings, they take the masculine form.
The Académie rebuffed such attempts earlier this year. Its secretary-in-perpetuity, Hélène Carrère d’Encausse, said that inclusive writing, even if it seemed to bolster a movement against sexist discrimination, “is not only counterproductive for that cause but harmful to the practice and intelligibility of the French language.”
Intelligibility has been a very strong norm in French culture for the almost four centuries since the Classic prose style emerged in the age of Descartes and Pascal. American wokesters, in contrast, are less inclined to write lucidly enough that their ideas can be rigorously evaluated by outsiders.
… Most Americans would be astonished to discover that what Mr. Jolivet called the woke movement — which he described as an insult to everyone else who is “supposedly asleep” — is really about attacking France.
Why is that astonishing? France has long resisted American hegemony, such as De Gaulle’s resistance to the American view of the Cold War or Chirac’s resistance to GW Bush’s Iraq Attaq. Moreover, Paris has been the central venue for ideological struggle since 1789 when the positions of the parties in the new French assembly defined the terms “left” and “right.” Wokeism, even if vaguely alluding for reasons of prestige to French literary Theory of the 1970s, is clearly a product of the high quantity / low quality American academic machine.
Equally, few French people outside a bubble of universities, media and politics ever discuss “le wokisme” or preferred pronouns in their daily lives. …
The differences are not only international. The Larousse dictionary derided the Robert initiative, dismissing “iel” as a “pseudo pronoun.”
… Meanwhile, Mr. Blanquer, the education minister, is not about to use the nonbinary pronoun.
As he told the French National Assembly in 2017, “There is only one French language, only one grammar, and only one Republic.”
The French state has long had strong unitary tendencies so that it can be united enough to compete with the highly centralized English state and later peer competitors. To the French, wokeism is American cultural rot made feasible by American being protected by two oceans.
On the verbal issues … I don’t know anything about French and not much more about English, but it’s not unreasonable to have quick, convenient ways of expressing the fact that you don’t know something about a person you are talking about. For instance, when I entered business in 1982, it was convenient for me that all the business letters to women workers at clients were now addressed “Dear Ms. So-and-So” rather than the previous distinction between “Dear Miss” and “Dear Mrs.” By 1982, I didn’t have to keep track of the marital status of dozens of female market research staffers whom I’d never meet.
Sex is more obvious, but often times you still don’t know or are speaking in the hypothetical. Say you witnessed an accident and tell the police: “The hit-and-run driver knocked down the old lady and then he took off northbound at 80 mph.” Using “he” is useful if you could see that the hit-and-run driver was a man, but it can be confusing if you are using “he” to mean “he or she” because you couldn’t tell the sex of the lawbreaker. In something this important, it’s good to spell out “he or she,” but that’s awkward in more casual conversations.
Most Americans seem to use “they” in these types of ambiguous situations, but in the hit-and-run case, that can cause confusion about the number of people in the car the cops are looking for.
Of course, being forced to memorize idiosyncratic pronouns to celebrate the fetishes, confusions, and whims of individuals is the opposite of going from Miss/Mrs. to Ms.
And being forced to refer to individuals with a plural pronoun and a singular verb — “they is” — just makes you sound illiterate. Of course, the humiliation is much of the appeal of imposing your childish demands regarding “your” pronouns on the people around you.