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Languages in Aosta Valley – Countering old research narratives in political and legal studies

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02 November 2021
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null - © Amador Loureiro Amador Loureiro

This second article aims to build upon the picture described in the previous episode and to propose some possible explanations, as well as some considerations on why Aosta Valley should be considered as an interesting case study.

The political representation of French as a strength and a weakness: totem and taboo

Political strategies at the regional stage have always played a central role and are a significant factor affecting the establishment and evolution of the Aosta Valley’s legal system. The right to use and teach French was indeed tenaciously claimed by Aosta Valley’s cultural elites and could be regarded as a political totem which represented the (re)conquered self-government. In other words, the linguistic claims, together with the ethno-cultural and historical arguments referring to the tradition of autonomy and particularism of this territory, were the central and most incisive arguments of the territorial political actors involved at the time when the regional autonomous arrangement was established. However, whereas the linguistic claims were indeed decisive at an early stage, successively they have turned out to be a limiting factor, as their political framing has constantly been tied to the previously mentioned cultural and historical arguments.

In the following decades the political representation of language issues has never really detached from that discourse, resulting in a defensive attitude towards linguistic particularism, which is protected as an identity stronghold and a code of exclusion rather than inclusion. The political capture of linguistic and cultural issues has contributed to amplifying and crystalizing their detachment from reality: the role of the political parties in Aosta Valley – and, above all, of the main autonomist party present on the regional political scene, the Union Valdôtaine – has been particularly incisive in this sense.

As a result, claiming for the protection of language and cultural particularism has generally become rather a rhetorical exercise today: every political actor feels obliged to uphold generic slogans, always reproducing consolidated and old-fashioned schemes and not opening up to innovative perspectives. Therefore, while, on the one side, linguistic issues are totems, on the other, they are taboos, as questioning them is unlikely to happen and politically inconvenient, given this paralyzed and ideologically consolidated situation. Concretely, French is used and survives today in ‘institutionalized reserves’ within educational and public administration-political systems, where one may perceive a practice at times contrived and rather stereotyped. For instance, French, despite significant planning and programming efforts and with the notable exception of nursery and primary schools, is still predominantly a language which is taught rather than one other subjects are taught in. With regard to political-administrative action, the use of French in political and administrative acts is often connected with specific topics, without an excessively complex content.

A mention should also be made of the political framing of Franco-Provençal, which nobody, after the Liberation in 1945, deemed worthy and thusly not in need of protective measures. In fact, it was considered only as a vernacular. This scarce consideration was also the result of a perception, generalized at that time, of patois as an outdated legacy, linked to the pastoral and agricultural dimension of the region. Consequently, many native families either more or less consciously have considered giving up patois to ensure a better future for their children.

In pledge of realism, flexibility and complexity, or the birth of a research project

The considerations presented in this two-episode article have revealed the existence of a significant discrepancy between legal categories and sociolinguistic reality in Aosta Valley. Furthermore, they have highlighted the role played by rather crystallized identity politics in the implementation and interpretation of a (formally) bilingual legal system.

This situation appears to teach us some important lessons. First, if pluralism is an active principle underlying contemporary constitutional systems and the attendant legal traditions, its implementation through the provision of differentiated rules should be continuously evaluated and possibly revised in our plural societies, according to the principle of proportionality. Minority rights and their practices evolve and may need adjustments in order to keep proving successful in their aims. Secondly, Aosta Valley’s example urges us to reflect on the traditional categories of minority rights, along with the interpretations of the reality they are supposed to explain and rule. This encounter with reality might then help us go beyond some existing narratives which sometimes appear excessively consolidated.

Indeed, the study of Aosta Valley shows both the practical and theoretical challenges which the nation-state approach to diversity management has recently been confronted with. With the expression “nation-state approach” or paradigm we mean the reproduction of a Westphalian model when it comes to minority protection. This implies, on the one side, considering only a limited number of legally recognized groups (minorities) possessing “national” characteristics (language, culture, religion, and so on) worthy of protection, and framing them as static and homogenous; on the other, conceiving territorial autonomy as an instrument for minorities by turning them into regional majorities. From a practical point of view, the nation-state paradigm applied to Aosta Valley has meant that a special position was given to French, considered the language of the minority, while the regional linguistic complexity, both regarding old and new linguistic practices, has ended up being overlooked. The latter model has manifested several limits when it comes to concretely favoring the internal pluralism of languages and managing a diverse, complex and dynamic context, gradually but further diversified by the growing presence of new minorities.

From a theoretical perspective, the so far limited scholarly work devoted to Aosta Valley has not contributed to putting in evidence the real complexity which characterizes the regional territory – preferring the abovementioned reassuring narrative – with this limiting theoretical reflection on the evolution of models for the accommodation of diversity that this context could have inspired. In other words, Aosta Valley is a missed yet potential research opportunity for scholars interested in minority rights, regional autonomy studies, and diversity management issues.

In fact, investigating this case could have led to critically considering the “traditional” models of minority rights protection, of course not just in order to rather simplistically highlight their unacceptability. In turn, this could have inspired an interest not only in the causes which account for the described situation but also in the effectiveness of the studied model, as well as in the possible solutions existing in other legal systems. And eventually, this could have resulted in focusing the attention on some emergent experiences and legal approaches marked by another logic, integrating the nation-state one, which can be referred to as a “plural paradigm”. The instruments which express the logic of the plural paradigm, while they may find a legal point of reference in several recent international soft law acts, are anyhow varied and still need a comprehensive theoretical framing. Their main commonality is that they are all marked by the fact that they mirror the complexity of the society where they are put in place, they are not simple and straightforward, they imply the idea that diversity is a general phenomenon that concerns society as a whole and not only some groups. Well, I guess that’s how my PhD project was born…

Nicolò Alessi

Nicolò Alessi is a PhD student in Public Comparative Law at the Universities of Verona and Fribourg. His research deals with the role of law in multicultural societies, focusing on the constitutional instruments for the accommodation of diversity. He has travelled all over Italy to study and has lived in many different Italian cities, but sometimes he misses the times when he worked in a hut in the mountains of Aosta Valley.

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