On January 27, 1794, during the initial period of Revolutionary fervor in France, the French politician Bertrand Barère de Vieuzac presented a report by the Committee of Public Safety (the de facto executive authority in France during this early stage of the Revolution) on the different languages spoken in France. The report famously states that, “Federalism and superstition speak Breton; emigration and hatred for the Revolution speak German; the counter revolution speaks Italian, and fanaticism speaks Basque. let us cast out the instruments of shame and terror” (emphasis added).

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Portrait of  by Bertrand Barère de Vieuzac byJean-Louis Laneuville. Image uploaded by Alberia torkenluvin, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

When it comes to studies on Basque history, this is a much quoted text, with many observers seeing it as the starting point for a systematic attempt by the new French Republic to eliminate Basque from public life in Iparralde. It has also been commented on by various Center publications.

Juan Madariaga Orbea’s Anthology of Apologists and Detractors of the Basque Language dedicates a whole section to Barère de Vieuzac (pp. 451-58) in which a substantial part of the report (translated into English) is reproduced.  In Madariaga Orbea’s own words, earlier in the work (p. 148):

From a theoretical and symbolic standpoint French was presented as the instrument that could attain universal values, the “general will,” and express philosophical and scientific concepts; it was to be a tool of unity and progress. All other languages spoken in the land were the legacy of diversity, of “individual will,” of confusion, discord, and the inability to speak in a civilized fashion. Otherwise, as these other languages were presented in profoundly inferior terms, they were rarely, if ever, called languages, rather, in the best of cases, they were referred to as “speech” and most commonly “cant,” “dialects,” or “manners of speech.” It should not be forgotten that among those patois were tongues that in other countries were considered national languages, such as Italian and German. Be that as it may, as the Revolution advanced, the language = unity equation (as opposed to patois = diversity) became deeply entrenched. From a political standpoint, the French language was the expression of all things national and revolutionary, whereas the patois were vehicles for servility, feudalistic thinking, fanaticism, superstition, slavery, barbarity, etc. French was “the language of liberty,” whereas mention was made of “servile” or “slave” tongues. In simple terms, the political message of the French Revolution was “one nation, one language.”

For Joseba Agirreazkenuaga, in The Making of the Basque Question, the report implied that “people who spoke other languages apart from the French language became ‘enemies’ of France and the use of languages began to become a political issue” (p. 134).

Igor Ahedo Gurrutxaga, however, in The Transformation of National Identity in the Basque Country of France, 1789-2006, points out that, “as the Barère Report also demonstrated, there was a high degree of republican public spirit in Iparralde, even if it was accompanied by an equally high degree of ideological activism by the clergy against the Republic. Thus, once again initially, at least, there was an attempt to instrumentalize Euskara to disseminate republican values through the translation of legal and revolutionary texts into the Basque language” (p. 35), even if this policy was soon dropped by the Revolutionary authorities.

See also, more generally on the issue of minority languages and nation-states, Language Rights and Cultural Diversity, edited by Xabier Irujo and Viola Miglio. This work also discusses Barère de Vieuzac’s report and (p. 16) contends that:

Barère does not argue for any intrinsic superiority of French—its superiority comes from its status as the national language, as a unifying principle for the newly minted post-Revolutionary state. Barère does comment on the supposed inferiority of the other languages present on the French territory (jargons barbares, idiomes grossiers, see below), claiming that they must be sacrificed in the name of national unity and internal coherence, that is, cultural standardization.