At some stage during the French presidential campaign, various people have questioned the legitimacy of French speakers. Indeed, who is the legitimate French speaker in France?
One of the first round candidates, Eva Joly, is of Norwegian origin. You can clearly notice this fact in her French pronunciation. Her "non-native pronunciation" – and the fact that she was not born and bred in France – has been used by many of her detractors.
Many jokes appeared in the media and social media. For instance, fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld advised Eva Joly to learn to speak French "correctly". Actor François Berléand said he was shocked that the green candidate couldn’t speak French "without accent": "Quand on a envie de s’intégrer, on s’intègre" he said. I let you translate the latter.
As mentioned previously, sociolinguists have long defined a language as "a dialect with an army and a flag". Max Weinreich was the first to disseminate such metaphor but many have reused it since then. It might be powerful for some, but for the French, it is no metaphor: according to the second article of their constitution, French is the language of the French Republic.
If you ask the French, they will tell you that French language is part of their identity. They will probably claim that it traces back to 1789. Some will mention the heritage of the Lumières that has filtered through French culture. Others will say French was made official during the third Republic (1870-1940), thanks to Jules Ferry, a statesman who wished to promote public education. The most clever ones will have you believe that French citizens must be able to speak French since Francis I of France’s "Ordonnance de Villers-Cotterêts" in 1539.
Don’t believe them. They may love their language but Francis I never said you had to speak French to be French. And he was never Président de la République.
The truth is that French did not become the language of the French Republic until the 4th October 1958, i.e. a mere 54 years ago – the European Union was already born at that time… Until then, the previous constitutions of the French Republic had never specified a language (though feel free to correct me with your comments below, I’m not a lawyer after all).
Implicitly, those who criticised Eva Joly’s accent were defining what they genuinely believed to be the legitimate French identity, when in fact, they were only expressing their fear of the other.
Tame your fears. Learn a language.