All about inclusive language and gender neutral pronouns in French

The world is changing, and inclusive or gender neutral language is becoming increasingly common. At least, that’s the case for English. But what about French? You may be wondering if inclusive language exists in French – and if it does, how does it work?

Let’s look at the most notable ways French is becoming more inclusive, and do a deep dive into the unique challenges of introducing new grammar and terminology into a staunchly traditional language!

What is inclusive language?

Inclusive or gender-neutral language is language that doesn’t discriminate against or define genders, thus “including” everyone, regardless of their sex or gender.

Does French have inclusive language?

Inclusive or gender neutral language does exist in French. It’s usually called l’écriture inclusive (inclusive writing), although technically this is only when referring to written French. You may also see terms like le langage neutre or la grammaire neutre.

Some French-speaking countries and regions have accepted inclusive language more than others, for various complex reasons. Since French Together focuses on French as it’s spoken in mainland France, we’re going to focus on that in this article.

But if you’re planning to travel or move to another place where French is spoken, be sure to learn about how this concept is perceived there. You can start with a general internet search for the place you want to learn about, plus “langage inclusive”.

That said, regardless of how the concept of inclusive language is seen, making language gender neutral is particularly hard in a language like French.

Why is it difficult to make French gender neutral?

A crowd of men and women stand with their backs to us. They are in what looks like a formal French garden, looking out over hedge to something beyond. They are framed by manicured trees cut in box-like shapes, as seen in many traditional formal French gardens.

Using gender neutral language can mean different things depending on the language itself. In a language like French, where all nouns are gendered and adjectives and some other parts of speech change to reflect that gender, it would be completely impossible to communicate without differentiating gender of any kind, even among objects (la cuisine, un corbeau, etc.).

And so, gender neutral language in French generally refers to three main things, which I’ll get into more in-depth further on:

1. Removing the dominance of the masculine in groups

In French, if you have a group of people or things that are both masculine and feminine, even if only one of them is masculine, the group will take a masculine adjective or be referred to with another masculine word.

For instance, in the sentence Marie, Alice, Pauline, et Marc sont gentils. (Marie, Alice, Pauline, and Marc are nice), we see that the adjective gentil (nice) has been pluralized, but it’s kept in its masculine form, since there is a male in the group. Just one male determines the adjective.

The same goes for objects: Ici, les magasins et les boutiques sont ouverts le dimanche. (Here, stores and shops are open on Sundays). Even though boutiques is a feminine noun, ouverts is pluralized but kept masculine since magasins is masculine.

It also works with pronouns. For example, if you have a mixed group of people, you would say Ils sont tous là. (They’re all here). Even if just one of those people is male and all of the others are female, you’d use the masculine plural pronoun Ils, as well as the masculine form of tout (all), tous.

An easy way to avoid doing this is to say something like Tout le monde est là (Everyone is here) instead.

But another, new solution, at least in written French, is the median point (point médian), a dot or period which allows a word to include all possible forms that could be applied to a group. It’s sometimes also called a middot.

Here’s how the median point works: When addressing a mixed group of people, someone might say Bonjour à tous (Hello everyone), using the masculine form of tout because there is at least one male present. With the more inclusive median point system, this would be written Bonjour à tou.te.s, or if the median point looks more like dots, Bonjour à tou·te·s.  

We’ll talk more about how to use the median point, and the controversies around it, a little later in this article.

2.Changing single-gender jobs and job titles

In French, most jobs and job titles have a masculine or a feminine form. For instance: pharmicien/pharmicienne; directeur/directrice.

But a number of jobs and job titles that were historically only held by men are still kept exclusively masculine, even though many women hold these jobs and job titles today.

Notable examples of these are:

un docteur (doctor, as a title for medical doctors and as a title/general term for doctors in academic fields)

un médecin (a doctor (most specifically a general practitioner))

un professeur/prof  (a teacher or professor)

un écrivain (writer)

Some people are fine with just leaving these professions in their traditional masculine grammatical gender. But others have tried to change them, either by feminizing them or by keeping them the same and allowing for the article used with them to change depending on the job/title holder’s gender.

We’ll get into this a bit further on.

3. Using a gender-neutral pronoun

Although there’s some resistance to all of the items on our list, using gender neutral pronouns is by far the most controversial.

The most widely accepted and used gender neutral pronoun in French is iel, a combination of il (he) and elle (she) that arose in internet and youth culture in the 2010’s. You may sometimes see alternate spellings, including yel or ielle.

Some French people are against the word iel (and its spelling variants) because they’re against concepts of gender fluidity and queerness, but many others are against it for another reason: it means a change to the French language.

Iel didn’t exist before the 2010’s and isn’t approved by the Académie Française, which means many French people don’t feel it’s a true French word.

We’ll investigate this controversy a little further on in our article.

Challenges to making French more inclusive

Someone presumably at a protest march or demonstration, holds a handwritten sign that says "Toutes les langues, tous les pays, toujours partout pour ÉGALITÉ. which means in English: Every language, every country, everywhere for equality. Beneath each letter "o" is a small cross, making it the female symbol.
Translation: Every language, every country, always everywhere for EQUALITY

Now that you know why using gender neutral language in French can be so challenging, let’s take a more in-depth look at each of these three aspects of gender neutral language and how they work – and don’t.

Can the French eliminate the dominant masculine when referring to groups?

As we’ve seen, one rule of French is that when an adjective is used with a group that contains both masculine and feminine people or things, the adjective is kept masculine. This is often referred to as the masculine dominance in the French language.

Many French people accept this as just a part of their language, and don’t think about it very much. But over the past few decades, many others have started to question the dominance of the masculine gender in French. Sure, these are just words, but what does it say, on a subliminal level, that feminine people and pronouns are essentially “erased” when combined with even one masculine person/thing?

Many people today want a term that acknowledges everyone equally. The current compromise is to either avoid using a gendered group word altogether, or to use something called the median point (le point médian). This is a period or dot that separates a word into its possible gender endings.  

So, one gender inclusive way of saying Bonjour à tous (Hello, everyone)  would be to say Bonjour à tous et à toutes. 

The downside here is that the phrase is much longer.

This may not just be annoying for the person who’s speaking or writing it.

For instance, this article reports that during his presidency, Charles de Gaulle was famous for addressing the nation thusly: Françaises, Français (Women and men of France). Super progressive! But he was often criticized by the Académie Française, which reminded him of the masculine dominance rule and encouraged him to simply use Français to address everyone.

A second way to use inclusive language, at least in written French, would be by employing median points. These dots or periods are inserted after the root of a word and then used to separate all possible gendered endings.

So with this system, Bonjour a tous would become

Bonjour à tou.te.s.

or you may see it written with dots instead:

Bonjour à tou·te·s.

Note that while the median point is a written language thing, you may hear French people read words written this way aloud, or dictate that the median point should be used. Although this may not always be the case, whenever I’ve heard a native French speaker do this, they emphasize each part: Bonjour à tou  te-uh and maybe insist on an “s”.

A number of French people, including some scholars and politicians (even French First Lady and former teacher Brigitte Macron), don’t like the median point system. It’s not necessarily because they don’t believe in gender inclusive language, but rather because it looks clumsy and makes for less smooth reading.

These are reasons why, in July 2021, then-Minister of Education Jean-Michel Blanquer banned this type of inclusive writing from being taught in French schools.

However, while there are still some issues around its universal acceptance, and it hasn’t been officially adopted by the French government (although local branches can choose what they want), this way of making French more inclusive has somewhat taken hold. Nowadays, you’ll often come across either the median point or longer but gender inclusive turns of phrase in many places. For instance, you can see several examples of it on this page about equality on the City of Paris’s official website.

Can French job title genders be more equal?

As we saw earlier in this article, all jobs and job titles in French are gendered. Most of them usually have both a masculine and a feminine form, but a number of notable jobs and job titles are exclusively masculine.

These include:

docteur (doctor, as a title for medical doctors and as a title/general term for doctors in academic fields)

médecin (a doctor (most specifically a general practitioner))

professeur/prof  (a teacher or professor)

écrivain (writer)

ministre (government minister/secretary)

As you probably guessed, these professions were historically only held by (or allowed to be held by) men. Or, in some cases, like écrivain, the field was made up mostly of men (that said, there have been a number of notable female writers throughout French history).

Fortunately, women have been able to hold these positions for decades, even centuries in some cases. So why should they still seem only reserved for men?

There are two solutions that you’ll find for this. One is to create a feminine form of the job title. Many other French-speaking countries choose this option, including Canada and Switzerland. But these changes aren’t standardized throughout the French-speaking world.

In mainland France, in fact, keeping the masculine gender of these professions for both men and women is fairly common. That’s why in France you’ll usually see a woman teacher referred to as un professeur or un prof.

Or you may see  une prof or une professeur. Changing the gender of the article but not the spelling of the job (in this case, not adding a feminine “e” to professeur) is another common option in mainland France.

A word like ministre is even easier to adapt, since it has an “e” at the end even in its masculine form. Today, you’ll usually hear female French government ministers called la ministre.

But feminizing professions and job titles that were exclusively masculine tends to be somewhat arbitrary.There doesn’t seem to be a hard and fast rule in most cases, so you’ll probably see examples of both keeping the job masculine and of using a feminine article with it.

Will a gender neutral pronoun be accepted into standard French?

In English, we most commonly use “they” for someone doesn’t identify as a male or female. This makes sense, since “they” was already used to refer to someone whose gender you don’t know, or about a hypothetical person.

But in French, there’s no easy, preexisting solution. You could say the pronoun on is a rough equivalent of “they” in the sense of an abstract, genderless person – but on can also be used to mean “we”, so it doesn’t quite work. Ils (They- masculine) or elles (they – feminine) are seen as truly plural words, and besides, each one corresponds to a gender.

And so, over the past decade or so, a new gender neutral pronoun evolved in the communities that felt a need for a one: iel, a combination of il (he) and elle (she).

If you’re talking about multiple nonbinary people, iels is the most common plural form – and in the spirit of inclusive language in general, the author of this article points out that it could also be used as an inclusive way to refer to a mixed group of people, another possible solution to the dominance of the masculine in French.

Since the word iel originated and was first widely used online and in oral language, it has some alternate spellings you might come across, including ielle and yel.

If you’d like to learn more about how iel is used as different parts of speech, here’s an excellent guide and a list of French-language explainers.

Inclusive language can be controversial, but for the French, creating a gender neutral pronoun is probably the most controversial issue of all.

At least one of the reasons why may surprise you: Beliefs about gender aside, what upsets many French people about iel is that it modifies the French language.

French people tend to be very proud of their language, and guard it carefully. It’s not uncommon, especially among the older generations, to be corrected if you make a mistake. You’ll even see slight spelling or grammar errors that might occasionally pop up on museum plaques or signage, corrected by pen by an indignant passerby.

Since 1634, the French have had an actual committee that regulates their language: l’Académie Française. The Académie decides things like which new words will be officially accepted into French, as well as decisions about subtleties of grammar and spelling rules.

In some ways, the Académie Française is a wonderful thing. Carefully and strictly regulating the French language means that overall it hasn’t changed much for centuries. And so, an advanced intermediate student of French can read 17th century literature like plays by Molière more or less as easily as they can read a modern-day French play, something that would be far more difficult with an unrestricted language like English!

But the Académie Française can’t control everything, which is why French slang has existed and continues to exist, despite its lack of “official” approval. Like all languages, French (at least, unsanctioned, everyday French) continues to evolve, regardless of what the Académie Française has to say about it.

Still, there’s often an outcry when anyone tries to change or add something to the French language, and iel is no exception.

So,while some people might not like gender neutral language or even nonbinary people, a good deal of the uproar that ensued when the word was added to the online edition of the Petit Robert dictionary in 2021 was simply due to the implication that French was changing in some way.

Tied to this were feelings of anger about the supposed cultural influence of the United States (a frequent complaint among certain people in France) and, on a much darker note, a threat to French “values”.

Although some of this is motivated by hate or fear of queer, trans, and nonbinary people, some of the issue may also be that the French aren’t traditionally demonstrative about their differences, especially when it comes to “private” matters like sexual and gender identity.

For most of the 20th century, for instance, France, and especially Paris, was a sort of haven for groups who faced discrimination in many other places, including members of the LGBTQ+ community. Numerous French artists, writers, and beloved celebrities belonged to this community, but it was rarely proclaimed from the rooftops.

Today, while some French cities, very much including Paris, have a strong LGBTQ+ community and events like Gay Pride parades, there is still an overall sense of everyone keeping their life private.

You could chalk this up to the concept of l’Égalité (Equality), one of the principles of the French Republic. Equal treatment for all is a noble idea, but it can also result in a lack of comprehension or tolerance for those who want to stand out or who want different treatment, as in the case of nonbinary people who aren’t content with choosing a male or female pronoun.

So, not all of the hate for iel comes from a place of hate for nonbinary people. But that being said, some of it does.

Although numbers vary, recent surveys tell us that 2.4 to 15% of younger generations of French people identify as nonbinary.

A recent survey cited on LGBTQ+ magazine Têtu’s website found that 51% of French people do not agree with the idea of their being two genders and nothing else. So a slight majority of French people recognize that a person could be nonbinary.

But on the other hand, last spring Le Monde reported that crimes against LGBTQ+ people in France had risen by 28%. France continues to be ranked among the safest places for LGBTQ+ people to live and travel in.  But this rise in hate crimes is definitely something to think about.

Considering all of these ways of thinking, it’s easy to understand why the gender neutral pronoun iel is the most controversial aspect of inclusive language in French.

Do you have to use inclusive language in French?

The legs and feet of three women - one wearing a long white skirt and black flats, and the two others wearing sandals, are facing towards each other in relaxed positions, as though the three women are having a conversation. A microphone and its wire lies casually on the ground between them, maybe recording?

As of now, there’s no “official” rule forcing you to use inclusive language and gender neutral pronouns in French, although if you work for a French or French-speaking organization or company that makes this their policy, you will have to follow suit.  

As a general rule, if you’re in a situation where others are doing it, it’s best to do the same, out of politeness, at the very least. Why cause an argument by refusing to say Bonjour tout le monde instead of Bonjour à tous, or not referring to someone with the pronoun iel if they asked to be referred to that way?

Learning a language should be about sharing moments and learning from and accepting others, after all.

I hope this look at inclusive language in French and France was helpful. Languages, like the world, change and evolve. It will be interesting to see if inclusive language becomes the norm in French in the coming years.

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Alysa Salzberg

Alysa Salzberg is an American writer, worrier, teacher, and cookie enthusiast who has lived in Paris, France, for more than a decade. She has taught English and French for more than ten years, most notably as an assistante de langue vivante for L'Education Nationale. She recently published her first novel, Hearts at Dawn, a "Beauty and the Beast" retelling that takes place during the 1870 Siege of Paris. You can read about her adventures here, or feel free to stop by her website.