For years France's regional languages were seen by Paris as a taboo that threatened national unity and should be repressed - children were punished for speaking Breton in the playground, banned from speaking Occitan in southern schools ordialect in the east. But now, just as the French parliament has taken a historic step to recognise minority languages in the constitution, a new war of words has broken out.
L'Académie française, the institution that defends the purity of French, yesterday issued a furious warning that recognising regional languages in the constitution would be "an attack on French national identity". In turn, local language militants criticised the academy as a ridiculous relic of outdated nationalism.
The row has highlighted how far France differs from other European countries in the defence of minority tongues. Unlike the UK, which has acted to protect languages such as Welsh and Scottish Gaelic, France is one of the few European states which refuses to ratify the European charter for minority languages and give legal status to its various language groups.
France boasts 75 regional languages, including those spoken in far-flung territories from the Indian Ocean to South America. Regional languages such as Alsatian, Occitan, Corse, Breton and Basque, and even smaller ones such as Béarnaise and Picard, have increasingly powerful and well-organised lobby groups. Parents have campaigned to set up regional language schools outside the state system, while the state has started offering some bilingual classes.
But minority languages have no legal status and are deemed by Unesco to be dying out. Before 1930 one in four French people spoke a regional language to their parents; that figure has nosedived.
Last month the parliament broke a taboo by holding a debate and agreeing to insert a line in the constitution recognising local languages as part of French heritage. "Speaking or singing in Breton, Alsatian or Basque doesn't stop you being patriotic," said one Breton MP. All parties were unanimous.
But before the senate examines the issue today, l'Académie française has objected, warning that writing regional languages into the constitution would dilute French identity.
Dàvid Grosclaude, president of Occitan language group l'Institut d'Estudis Occitans, issued an open letter to the academy, which he called "full of bitterness, resentment and fear" and too blinkered to recognise France's diverse citizenship.
Philippe Jacq, director of l'Office de la Langue Bretonne, said the constitutional change was only a small step, and France must provide legal recognition and sign the European charter.
He said: "All we ask for is to speak our languages in public life, to have services in our languages, for parents to have the right for their children to be taught in the language of their choice."