Benjamin Gavaudo and CNM The lexical sky hanging from the glass roof of the tennis court of the castle of François 1er, in Villers-Cotterêts
“Tattooiner.” The word sits in gold letters alongside a hundred others. His companions are “wassingue” (a mop, in Ch’ti), “ziboulateur” (a corkscrew, in Congo-Brazzaville), “chelou” (ladle, in verlan) and “carabistouille” (stupidity, in Belgium ). This “lexical sky” hanging from the glass roof of the tennis court of the Château de François 1er, in Villers-Cotterêts, is one of the works of art which adorn the new Cité Internationale de la Langue Française, which will open its doors on November 1st.
Postponed for months, this opening marks the culmination of a project cherished by Emmanuel Macron since his first electoral campaign, in 2017. Passing through this economically devastated city and whose mayor is an elected representative of the National Rally, he had promised to restore the castle of François 1er, abandoned since 2014.
Located less than 100 km from Paris, this place which was nevertheless the place of all the royal pleasures had become a gigantic wart in the middle of this commune of 100,000 inhabitants. A town whose town center is reduced to two cafes, a cinema and a few bank and real estate agencies. Without forgetting the house where Alexandre Dumas was born.
< /p>Photo: Pierre-Olivier Deschamps Agence Vu and CNM The Center des monuments nationaux after its restoration
It was in this castle, still under construction, that in 1539, François I signed the famous Ordinance of Villers-Cotterêts, which established for the first time the primacy of French in all administrative texts and court decisions. The text stipulated that, from now on, notarial acts, archives and baptismal declarations would no longer be written in Latin, but in the native “French” language, explains the main curator of the permanent exhibition, Xavier North.
At the same time, France moved from oral law to written law. For the first time, a prescription was printed in several thousand copies and distributed throughout the kingdom. “Even if, at that time, the vast majority of the population spoke other languages, the status of French was consolidated thanks to the appearance of printing, numerous translations of the Bible and the emergence of poets de la Pléiade, like De Ronsard and Du Bellay, of whom the poet of François I, Clément Marot, was a precursor. »
Photo: Didier Plowy er CNM The magic library, at the Cité internationale de la langue française
Where was the famous ordinance signed? “It must have happened in the chapel, the antechamber or the king’s bedroom. But we don't know anything about it,” says the deputy director of the City, Xavier Bailly, who recalls that “we are here before a true masterpiece of the Renaissance.”
This castle, where François 1st came to hunt deer in the magnificent forest of Retz, was one of the very first to be influenced by the Italian Renaissance. We see it in its colonnaded facade, in the friezes depicting salamanders (symbol of Francis I) which adorn the King's staircase, as well as in the finely designed columns of the royal chapel.
But it needed more to move the revolutionaries. The castle was the home of the king, then the Dukes of Orléans, and Napoleon then made it a begging depot serving both as a prison and a hospice. In 1889, the castle was converted into a retirement home and housed up to 1000 elderly people.
It took more than five years and the intervention of 600 companions from 65 trades to make it the International City of the French Language.
Photo: Didier Plowy and CNM The work “Move around, there’s the world to see” created on a skateboard by Miss Tic.
A language to defend?
Despite its 1,200 m2 and 15 permanent exhibition rooms, “the Cité is not a museum,” insists its director, Paul Rondin. It is rather a cultural center which will welcome, in its auditorium and its numerous multipurpose rooms, artists and researchers in residence, as well as various activities highlighting the French language — regardless of where it is spoken.< /p>
“We are not here to defend the French language. She doesn’t need us for that! » specifies the director from the outset, recalling that the French language is spoken by 321 million speakers around the world. An assertion partly contradicted by a large wall painting which, with irony, illustrates article 2 of the French Constitution (“The language of the Republic is French”) surrounded by hundreds of English titles and slogans, which abound like never before in commerce and advertising in France… and even in the president's vocabulary.
“We did not want to demonstrate a thesis, but such a table still expresses a point of view,” corrects Xavier North. “At the same time, this Cité represents a gesture of confidence in the future of French. To survive, a language must be able to express reality, give a future to those who speak it, produce works, but also generate political will. Without political will, as was the case in Quebec for French and in Israel for Hebrew, we can indeed wonder whether French will survive. »
To survive, a language must be able to express reality, give a future to those who speak it, produce works, but also generate political will. Without political will, as was the case in Quebec for French and in Israel for Hebrew, we can indeed wonder whether French will survive.
— Xavier North
Quebec in evidence
The permanent exhibition, entitled The French Adventure< /i>, occupies the entire first floor. She evokes in turn the international character of our language, its continued evolution as well as the role of writing and the State in its history.
Quebec is not left out. The room dedicated to decolonization is illustrated with an extract from the famous poem Speak White, by Michèle Lalonde. An extract that would perhaps even have made some Quebec conservatives pale: “we know that freedom is a black word/like poverty is black/and like blood mixes with the dust of the streets of Algiers or Little Rock”.
Photo: Benjamin Gavaudo and CNM In the room “A Château , a territory”, the first of the permanent route, there is a large chronological fresco, a tactile model and a projection, which tell the history of the castle and its architecture.
In the room devoted to the role of the State, an old radio called “Québec 101” broadcasts speeches from Quebec politicians on the French language. Further on, we can hear two Quebecers discussing how to translate “fake news“, as well as the playwright Carole Fréchette discussing with French, Lebanese and Guinean colleagues the adaptation of a scene from Femmes savantes.
It must be said that with the exception of France, Quebec is the only other state to have offered a financial contribution. It amounts to two million dollars, not counting the involvement of other Quebec organizations. Thus, starting this month, thanks to the Conseil des arts et des lettres du Québec, the weaving artist Éveline Cantin-Bergeron will be in residence at the château.
The “language by Molière”
La Cité wanted to reserve a place for the regional languages of France, as well as for the various language levels. Moreover, explains Xavier North, “if French is nicknamed “the language of Molière”, it is because its theater includes all registers of language, from the most popular to the most noble.”
The renovation of the entire 23,000 m2 that constitutes the Château de Villers-Cotterêts has already swallowed up 210 million euros and is far from complete. Unlike the royal residence, the buildings surrounding the Uffizi courtyard on either side, as well as the old kitchens and the old dryer, remain vacant while waiting for a hotel or restaurant to deign to set up there. Cautious, investors seem to be waiting to see if the Cité, located less than an hour by train from Paris, will fulfill its promises of 200,000 visitors per year.
But perhaps the influence of this Cité is it not reduced to the number of its visitors, just as “the importance of a language is not reduced to the number of its speakers”, recalls Xavier North. “French may be the fifth most spoken language in the world – and the second most translated – but it is certainly the one from which we have borrowed the most. It is no coincidence that The Little Prince is the most translated book in the world after the Bible. »