A cultural revival in France. Bretons regaining pride and prowess in their heritage

In the tiny room, among the handful of students, and between the lessons and the drills, there is just a faint hint of defiance in the air. The subject at hand is Breton. Teaching and learning the ancient language of this rugged northwestern peninsula is hardly the stuff of rebellion, but the fact that such classes are meeting in state-run schools does represent something of a revolution. After centuries of being suppressed or ignored, Breton as a language and a culture is coming back.

``I took it . . . because after all it's the language of my ancestors,'' says Gwena"el Baron, who is in his last year at the Lyc'ee St. Martin in Rennes. ``Personally, I'm proud to be a Breton. So it's quite natural that I should know at least a few words of Breton.''

But it was not always quite natural in a French nation that considered its own language and culture superior. So it represented quite a change when the French government announced last summer the creation of a national commission to study and promote the nation's minority cultures: Breton, Alsatian, Corsican, and others.

France is beginning to recognize that it is more than just French, and the cultural revival in Brittany has led the way.

``People didn't see that they had to speak the Breton language because it's our spirit,'' says Erwan Le Coadic, director of the Rennes Center of Breton Information. But now ``they know we have a culture, one of the oldest in the world. They want to learn both the language and the culture.''

Relatives of the Welsh and Cornish, the Bretons settled on the Continent in the 4th and 5th centuries and survived as an independent duchy until 1532, when they were annexed by France. Slowly and steadily, their culture began to crumble under constant pressure from Paris.

Even though as late as the 1790s an estimated 40 percent of the people in France spoke a regional language other than French, the national government mounted a relentless campaign to promote what it considered the language of liberty.

``The constant policy of the French government since the French Revolution has been to destroy the regional languages,'' says Bernard Le Nail, director of the Cultural Institute of Brittany.

Isolated geographically, western Brittany managed to remain monoglot Breton-speaking until the early part of this century, but two world wars and economic hard times did much to assimilate the region.

Soldiers conscripted in the Army were forced to speak French, and there were stories of some Breton-speakers being tried and shot because they could not understand orders they were given.

In the state-run schools, students caught speaking Breton were forced to stand in class with a stone or wooden clog tied to their necks, and they were encouraged to denounce their Breton-speaking friends. In 1947, Education Minister Marcel Nagelen declared: ``The task of teachers in the Breton-speaking areas is identical with that of French teachers in Algeria: Assimilate the population at any price.''

Continuous economic trouble dealt a further blow, forcing some 250,000 young Bretons to look for work elsewhere between the wars. ``It's really a region that was bled of all its youth,'' says Mr. Le Nail.

And beneath the weight of government and economic pressure, parents began to teach their children French ways rather than Breton ones. ``For many Bretons, to demonstrate in favor of the Breton language or of Brittany was often considered to be a bad Frenchmen,'' Le Nail says.

One million people spoke Breton between the world wars, compared with perhaps half that today, and few of them use it every day. Keeping the language alive has been no easy task, since those who continue to speak it do so out of conviction rather than necessity. Even its supporters recognize that preserving it will involve a constant struggle.

But with a renewed regional pride and a change of attitude in the capital, there are new signs of optimism.

One of the turning points in the region's renewal came during the student uprisings of 1968.

``It seemed as if the old society was crumbling down, and people wanted to get back to more traditional values,'' says Per Denez, director of Celtic Languages at the University of Haute Bretagne.

A whole pressure group grew up demanding not only cultural support, but also agricultural and economic aid for Brittany. For many years, extremists went so far as to demand independence for the region, some even resorting to bombing public buildings.

Gradually, the government began to see less of a threat in its minority cultures as well. During a visit to Brittany in 1977, then-President Val'ery Giscard d'Estaing marked this reversal by declaring: ``The time has come to assert that there is no contradiction between being fully French, and continuing to live with regional or local traditions, customs, and culture.''

Further pressure came from the Socialists, then in opposition, who sought to exploit Brittany's discontent. As late as 1981, candidate Franois Mitterrand denounced what he called France's ``shameful persecution'' of minorities.

Slowly but surely, Paris began to offer support. Breton classes slowly started to make their way into schools at almost every level. Government money was also allocated to help publish novels, children's stories, and even cartoons in Breton.

While the new Socialist government has not moved as quickly as many Bretons expected, support for the language has been growing. Just last summer, a teaching certificate in Breton was instituted, which many hope will result in making more Breton teachers available. Culture Minister Jack Lang also announced the government's support for bilingual road signs.

Many complain that the government is still merely allowing Breton, rather than actively encouraging it. Among other things, they want to see more Breton programs on the state radio and television.

But the cultural activists are heartened by the renewed interest in learning Breton, particularly among young people. Classes like the one at the Lyc'ee St. Martin are a sign that there is life in the language and life in the culture yet. As their slogan says: ``Hep Brezhoneg, Breizh Ebet'' (``Without Breton, There Is No Brittany'').

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