How Do You Say ‘Female Soccer Defender’ in French? World Cup Host France Doesn’t Know.

The tournament is forcing a debate over the hidebound language and its rigidity over gender

PARIS—In all of his years as a player for the French national soccer team, followed by all of his years as a soccer announcer for France’s national TV station, Bixente Lizarazu never gave much thought to how he named the positions on the field.

Then came this year’s Women’s World Cup, held in France for the first time, and Mr. Lizarazu ran into the Byzantine rules of the French language.

More than five years after France was chosen to host the world’s biggest women-only sporting event—and four weeks after the tournament began—the country still can’t agree on what to call the players or managers.

As a romance language with masculine and feminine genders for nouns, French takes different turns depending on who or what is being discussed. Most jobs are constructed with masculine endings by default, with little guidance on how to refer to women in the profession. So what happens when that profession is international women’s soccer defender?

The language offers at least three options:

  1. the masculine form défenseur,
  2. the feminine form défenseuse,
  3. or another feminine form défenseure,

which is pronounced exactly the same as the masculine. And if you follow French coverage of the tournament, you might see all three.

In Le Monde, you would read about a défenseuse or sélectionneuse (the word used for national team managers). A dispatch from Agence France-Presse, meanwhile, will say défenseure and sélectionneure. Television networks TF1 and Canal+, which are broadcasting the tournament here, often use one form in graphics on screen, but let commentators like Mr. Lizarazu employ another during live broadcasts.

“I prefer to use défenseuse, because it marks the feminine more clearly,” Mr. Lizarazu said. “I don’t think we were ever given a directive.”

Female commentators have landed on both sides of the question, with no clear preference for one construction from broadcast to broadcast.

This isn’t an issue in English, where a defender is a defender. Nor is it a problem for languages with clearer rules for feminine construction, such as German, where a female defender is quite simply an Abwehrspielerin.

This is France, however, a country that treats the intricacy of its language as a point of pride. When it comes to questions of proper usage, the country has its own ancient authority, the 384-year-old Académie Française. Its 35 members are known as the Immortals. They are charged with sporadically producing the definitive dictionary on usage and cutting through the babble of a constantly evolving tongue. They are even issued swords.

But time moves slowly at the Académie. In 1984, as more French speakers adapted their speech to reflect a growing number of women in the workplace, the Académie felt compelled to weigh in on the topic: It ruled out any changes, preferring to stick to the masculine form, except in cases where usage had already taken root. It was important to remember, the Académie argued at the time, that there was no connection between what it called “natural gender” and “grammatical gender.”

Three decades later, in 2014, the institution still wasn’t inclined to endorse any sweeping changes.

In February, a four-person committee of historians and writers produced a 20-page report on the matter. Noting a large spike in usage over the past 10 years, it stated that there was no problem, “in principle,” with creating feminine forms for job titles and descriptors in France. It helped that the committee found traces of the practice as far back as the Middle Ages.

 “We could disagree about the forms it would take, but opposing it no longer made any sense,” said Danièle Sallenave, an author and member of the Académie since 2011, who was on the committee.

So in a rare move for an institution normally as inflexible as a week-old baguette, the Académie said that it favored a more pragmatic approach to the question at this “time of linguistic instability.”

The question as it applies to soccer comes amid larger debates about gender equality at this World Cup, from the equal-pay lawsuit brought by several U.S. players against their own federation to issues of prize money. The winner of the Women’s World Cup will take home $4 million, while the men’s winner, France, got $38 million last year. That French didn’t have a standard construction for talking about the players during the tournament added an unforeseen twist.

The Académie says there isn’t necessarily a right or wrong answer. Although it spent over a page of its report discussing military ranks, it didn’t find room to go over positions on a soccer field. The committee made a point of not ruling on the tricky distinction between the “-eure” and “-euse” endings that crop up all over the game.

Jean-Pierre Colignon, a former chief copy editor at Le Monde, was more definitive, though he understood the conundrum.

Even the French national team, eliminated from the World Cup last week by the U.S., was stumped by the question when it hired manager Corinne Diacre in 2017. While Ms. Diacre, who has coached men’s and women’s sides during her career, is just “Corinne” to her players, the French federation needed to make a call one way or the other for official team communications. After much internal debate, it cautiously opted for sélectionneure.

“We asked the Académie and they didn’t make a call,” a spokesman said in French. “They’re waiting for the usage to settle itself.”

For broadcasters such as TF1’s play-by-play man Grégoire Margotton, it’s a matter of picking one and sticking to it. And when in doubt, he can always employ the French language’s favorite shortcut: English.

“Sometimes it’s just easier to say coach,” Mr. Margotton said. “That’s always just ‘coach.’ ”

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A Star Graduate of France’s Elite School Wants to Close Its Doors

President Emmanuel Macron suggests shutting the École Nationale d’Administration, a symbol of cronyism for many protesters

STRASBOURG, France—One school has been the cradle of the French establishment for decades, grooming future presidents, prime ministers and chief executives.

Now, one of its most illustrious alumni, President Emmanuel Macron, wants to shut his alma mater, the École Nationale d’Administration, or ENA, an institution that has become a symbol of France’s close-knit elite and persistent class divide.

Mr. Macron aims to placate yellow-vest protesters who have bedeviled his government for months, accusing him of paying too little heed to the economic pain of the working and rural class.

ENA has become a particular target, along with its graduates, known as énarques.

The president’s proposal comes at the end of months of high-profile public debates he organized in response to the demonstrations.

“We need to abolish ENA,” Mr. Macron said in April.

The school’s closure would be part of a broader push to overhaul France’s education system for high-ranking civil servants in an effort to improve opportunities for the underprivileged. Mr. Macron has pledged “to build something new that works better,” but hasn’t provided further details.

ENA was designed as a meritocracy to open better opportunities to all students regardless of their background. But critics say the school has become a breeding ground for cronyism, perpetuating a social pecking order that allows énarques to monopolize top positions in society. They run the prime minister’s office, the finance ministry, the central bank, two of the highest courts and many top private-sector companies. Three of France’s past four presidents are graduates of the two-year program.

“It’s a very French hypocrisy. The system is egalitarian on paper but unequal in practice,” said Jean-Pascal Lanuit, a senior official at the culture ministry and a former ENA student.

But many believe shutting ENA won’t change an elitist culture perpetuated by a two-tier education system. On one side, there are highly competitive institutions known as grandes écoles, public and private schools that are akin to the U.S. Ivy League schools, including engineering school École Polytechnique and business school HEC Paris.

On the other are universities open to almost everyone, but with sometimes crowded classrooms and crumbling facilities.

ENA was founded after World War II to better train high-ranking civil servants and open top government positions that had been reserved for “wealthy students living in Paris,” according to a 1945 government document. The creation was orchestrated by the then-general secretary of the French communist party, under Charles de Gaulle’s temporary government.

.. The Strasbourg-based school recruits about 80 students every year—compared with 2,000 undergraduates at Harvard University—based on a rigorous competitive entrance exam that includes five written tests lasting as long as five hours each in law, economy, social issues and public finances.

Tuition is free and students receive a monthly stipend to pay for books and housing.

But critics say ENA counts few students from rural, low-income families, and most current students are young white men.

The main reason, critics say, is the growing inequality of the French education system. Indeed, most ENA students have attended France’s top high schools and one of the best preparatory classes for the entrance exam. As a result, instead of promoting social mobility, the system ends up subsidizing the education of the rich with taxpayers’ money.

Many ENA students come from similar neighborhoods and attended the same schools. “I knew almost everyone there when I arrived in school,” said Florian Paret, a 27-year-old Parisian and second-year student at ENA, who graduated from the elite Paris Institute of Political Studies.

There are fewer opportunities for social advancement today compared with 40 years ago, said Ségolène Royal, a former minister and socialist candidate for the 2007 presidential elections who attended ENA and graduated in 1980.

“I’m not sure that it would have been possible for me today to follow the same path because there’s a kind of state aristocracy that has established itself,” said Ms. Royal, who came from a middle-income family in eastern France, recently. While at ENA, she met François Hollande, who would become her long-term partner and French president.

Once inside ENA, competition is fierce because top-ranked students can cherry-pick the most prestigious government posts upon graduation, including working at France’s highest courts or powerful state auditing bodies.

“Competition is part of the school’s DNA,” said Alexandre Allegret-Pilot, 30, who had degrees in biology, law and business before entering ENA.

After they graduate, énarques must work for the government for at least 10 years. If they leave earlier, they need to partly reimburse the school for tuition; usually private companies that hire young énarques pay back ENA as part of the hiring compensation.

Today, more former students move between the private and public sectors, deepening the perception that énarques monopolize top positions. After joining the state auditing body, Mr. Macron worked for private bank Rothschild & Cie. from 2008 to 2012, before moving back to government.

The vast majority of énarques, however, work for the government for their entire career. Few actually run for office, even if the school is known for producing presidents and ministers.

“ENA is being used as a scapegoat,” said Joachim Bitterlich, a former German diplomat and member of ENA’s board, who graduated in 1974.

More recently, ENA, which accepts a few international students a year, has sought to broaden its student body, notably by creating preparatory classes for the entrance exam for students from underprivileged areas.

“ENA can change,” said Daniel Keller, who heads the alumni association. “But I’m all for preserving the ENA brand. It’s a label that has value.”

It will be up to Frédéric Thiriez, an énarque Mr. Macron chose in April to lead the overhaul of France’s civil servants’ training.

Even if ENA were to close, it isn’t clear if that will be enough to appease the yellow vests.

“That’s secondary,” said Theo Feugueur, a 19-year-old law student in the Paris region, who takes part in yellow-vest protests every Saturday. “He should abolish all the grandes écoles.”


A Populist Surge Is Pulling Three U.S. Allies Into Political Crises

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Leaders in America’s top 3 European Allies face Crisis

  1. Britain: Teresa May tries to manage a Brexit vote motivated by anti-immigration
  2. France: Emmanuel Macron faces rioting in the streets over a carbon tax
  3. Germany: Angela Merkel has to step down as leader amid backlash over middle east immigration