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Emerging Diversity:

Brittany's Diwan Schools

Lars O. Erickson

Assistant Professor of French,
University of Rhode Island, U.S.A.

On October 30, 2001, the Conseil d'Etat of France ordered to reject the protocole signed May 28 of the same year by the Minister of Education that would have allowed the merger of the Diwan schools into the National educational system (Le Pors 2002). The judgment is at once trivial and serious. The decision itself was a judicial trifle since the French constitution states simply, "La langue de la République est le français" [The language of the Republic is French].[1] Thus, as Hughues Moutouh explains, public monies cannot fund Diwan's Breton language immersion-style education. Moreover, at the time of the judicial decision, the number of students involved totaled only 2780, just a fraction of Brittany's school-age population and an even more insignificant portion of France's school-age population.[2] In spite of these attestations of insignificance, the decision has been a much debated topic ever since it was set down.[3] This small system of associative schools has opened a debate on the principles of the French republic, asking how diversity can fit into the Republican ideals of liberté, égalité, and fraternité.

The Diwan schools in Brittany, France provide an alternative form of schooling by using Breton as the main language of instruction. For over twenty-five years, Diwan schools have existed in the Celtic part of France. Over that time period, the school has continued to grow and now it composes 38 schools, including four middle schools, a high school, and an elementary school in Paris that opened in 2004.[4] While Diwan's success has received public attention, the system's status has yet to garner official recognition. Neither private nor public, they are called associative schools and receive only a modicum of the funds given to the national public schools. On many levels the Diwan schools represent a new definition of diversity in France.

Historically, diversity in France has meant accepting all and creating one. In Through French Windows, James Corbett explains that France has never been a multicultural society, noting that it assimilates individuals, not ethnic groups (1994, 202). He adds that "France looks with suspicion even on native minority cultures like those of the Basques, Bretons, or Corsicans. Foreigners are expected to fit into the French mold, French thought processes, the French value system" (1994, 203). In a recent commentary published in Le Figaro, Anicet Le Pors proves that this view still holds sway over the French republic. He asks, "Est-il souhaitable [de reconnaître] un droit à pratiquer une langue autre que le français non seulement dans la 'vie privée' mais également dans la 'vie publique' (justice, autorités administratives, et services publics)? La réponse est non" [Is it desirable (to recognize) a right to use a language other than French not only in "private life" but also in "public life" (law, administration, and public services)? The answer is no]. Ronan Le Coadic states in his article "Modernité aiguë et minorité" that France has never considered itself a pluricultural country in spite of constituting itself through the absorption of outlying provinces and immigrant populations (2002, 4). While addressing the same issues as the two previously mentioned scholars, Fernand Braudel argues that the tension between diversity and unity defines France's tradition. He explains his description of France, writing "It has been and still is France's destiny to live between the contrary pulls of plural and singular: for plural read diversity, as ineradicable as bindweed; for singular read the tendency towards unity, something both spontaneous and consciously willed - but not willed only" (1998, 125). Diwan indicates a sharp refusal of France's unifying tendency, since it stands for maintaining difference.

Diwan places itself in this maelstrom of plural and singular by offering an educational option within the French educational system. In Le Projet Pédagogique de Diwan, one reads that Diwan is a movement of parents and teachers choosing to use a school to bring a culture to life (1992, 1). The document adds, "Jusqu'à la création de Diwan, aucun choix n'était possible, l'école véhiculant une seule culture, la culture française au travers d'un unique support : la langue française" [Until the creation of Diwan, no choice was possible, since the school system disseminates a single culture, French culture through the intermediary of a single support: the French language] (1992, 1). Beginning at the CE1 Level, Diwan students are gradually introduced to more and more French until they reach collège [junior high school]. From this point on, Diwan students function in what the school calls "le cocktail Diwan," which means that one third of their schooling is conducted in French, the rest in Breton. They complete their schooling with a mastery of French that exceeds the national average (Perazzi 1998, 24). Another Diwan document contains a copy of Claude Hagège's speech given on behalf of Diwan. The linguist notes that the defense of French in view of the invasion of English can only be credible if France begins to promote its regional languages. In other words, international linguistic diversity can only be promoted by first advocating national linguistic diversity. These facets of the Diwan program emphasize the desire to replace the uniformity of French education with the multiplicity of the Diwan approach.

A survey of the historical trends of bilingual education in Brittany shows a growing acceptance of bilingual education over the last twenty-five years. Fañch Broudic in La Pratique du breton notes that throughout the nineteenth century and into the early years of the twentieth century Breton was the dominant language of Brittany. Around 1940, there were, for the first time, more monolingual French speakers than monolingual Breton speakers (1999, 27). He says that the situation changed quickly during the second half of the twentieth century, writing, "Il a donc suffi de moins d'un siècle pour transformer radicalement les habitudes langagières de la Basse-Bretagne, et pour que le breton de moyen de communication quasi-exclusif de toute une population, ne soit plus que le moyen d'expression marginalisé d'une fraction réduite de cette même population" [Thus, it took less than a century to transform radically the linguistic practices of Lower Brittany and to change Breton from the nearly exclusive means of communication for an entire population into the marginalized means of expression of a reduced fraction of that same population] (1995, 352). In an effort to stop the erosion of Breton, the first Diwan school was created in 1977.[5] During the first year of this first school, five children enrolled in la maternelle [nursery school] (Perazzi 1998, 15). The following year seven more schools opened throughout Brittany (Perazzi 1998, 25). Over the last ten years, enrollments have more than doubled, going from 1,235 in the year 1994 to a total of 2,834 in the year 2004.[6] Started by militant Bretons[7] fighting for the preservation of a language and a culture, the movement has become democratized. It has spilled over, changing attitudes in the other school systems. There are now public-school bilingual tracks and private-school bilingual tracks. When one includes the non-Diwan Breton educational institutions, there are 9,668 students studying the Breton language.[8]

The renewal of the Breton identity has been the subject of four particularly noteworthy recent studies.[9] This resurgence manifests itself in many different ways, and the increasing interest in learning the Breton language is one important aspect of this cultural trend.[10] Within the Diwan community, however, some have expressed misgivings concerning the growing student body. Some of the interviewees with whom I spoke during the summer of 2000 expressed concern over the lack of commitment of the new generation of Diwan parents. The evidence I gathered through the interviews, indicates that there are many more similarities than differences between the old guard and the new. Some of the primary motivations separate the families, but on a deeper level all the families selected Diwan because of its unique approach to education.

After having asked sixteen families to explain what motiviated them to enroll their children in the Diwan schools, I began to see three primary trends in their responses. Those interviewed ascribed to Diwan three main areas of diversity: ethnic, linguistic, or pedagogical. While the specific reasons varied, it became apparent that the parents embraced these bilingual schools because they all represent diversity. They sought something out of the mainstream on purpose and chose Diwan because it was different. This generalized willingness to seek out alternatives constitutes the first tremors of a major shift in French attitudes toward diversity.

Certain families stressed the ethnic importance of Diwan. Teaching Breton plants a seed in the children (in English, diwan means sprout or seed) and through the youth the threatened language will blossom. In general, the militant Bretons make up this group and they tend to be older parents with teenage children. Bob Simon is a good example of this group. During his childhood in the agricultural area around Saint Pol de Léon, Bob spoke Breton before learning French. He now, as he says, makes his living because of Breton. Bob is an actor and singer in the Breton language troupe, Ar Vro Bagan and puts on Breton language workshops throughout the region. For him, Diwan was never even a choice-that was always how his children were going to be raised. Indeed, Bob was instrumental in getting the Saint Pol de Léon school started and, at the time of the interview, was the head of the parents' association at the school. Likewise, Jo and Christine Le Duigou say that their primary motivation for choosing Diwan was to protect Breton language and culture. For them, however, the choice was not self-evident. Their oldest daughter, now nineteen, went through the National Educational system. Jo and Christine put their next two children into the Diwan system. Jo says that if Breton were not part of the school, they would not be interested in it, yet both Jo and Christine reacted against their dissatisfaction with their eldest's experiences. They wanted to find another style of school and another way of teaching. When they talk about Diwan they emphasize its flexibility, its appeal to children's creativity and its ability to instill in children the pleasure of learning. But Jo maintains that if Breton didn't play a part, there would be no reason to be in Diwan. Similarly, for Iwan Guégan, Breton is the driving force. Iwan may be the quintessential militant Breton. Born in Paris as Yves, this notaire (notary) now lives in Carantec where he routinely writes contracts in Breton. However, in spite of his militancy, Iwan says he has no particular attachement to Diwan, any Breton option would have been fine. He is happy with the Diwan school in Morlaix, but he has not ruled out switching to either the public or private bilingual schools. For these families, the Breton language was the main reason for choosing Diwan.

Other families stressed the linguistic benefits of Diwan's bilingual curriculum. Citing psychological and neurological studies, these parents touted the intellectual benefits their children would garner from an early immersion in another language. Young parents with toddlers or elementary school age children dominate this sub-section of the Diwan population. They often say that Breton in the school was incidental, they wanted any bilingual school and Diwan happened to be close. For instance, Michel and Sophie Cabioch chose the Diwan school in Saint Pol de Léon because of the advantages of bilingual education. Michel said that for him if the school had taught Spanish or English in addition to French, it would have been the same. Sophie tempered her husband's comments. She countered that while the benefits of a bilingual education education were her primary motivation, she also felt that it was a good idea to keep Breton alive, that "our history and our culture is good for something," and that without Diwan, the language would be dead. Another young couple, Jean-Paul and Pascale Severe echoed the Cabioch's views. They see bilingualism as the main benefit for their two-year old son who attends the Saint Pol de Léon school. Their decision to enroll him in the school was hastened by tertiary factors. They cited the warm welcome of the teachers during the school's open house, they mentioned the setting (the school at that time was housed in an eighteenth-century chateau with grounds that offer views of the ocean, but has since been forced, due to the vagaries of the associative-school status, to move elsewhere), and the small class sizes. Nevertheless, the pyscho-intellectual benefits of an early bilingual education prompted them to select Diwan. Claude Trebaol-Leroux gives the clearest articulation to the views of this group. She has three children, a twelve-year old, a ten-year old, and a six-year old. Surprisingly, only the youngest is enrolled in Diwan. Claude wanted a bilingual school because of the advantages of an early immersion in a second language, in any second language. However, later on she admits that she really liked the growing development of a regional attachment. Indeed, every family in this group that chose Diwan because of the benefits of a bilingual education said any language would have been fine, yet they also made comments indicating that Breton was the best language for them. That is, they discovered their Breton identity once involved with the school.

Still others claimed that they chose Diwan for pedagogical reasons. The program's curriculum offers greater flexibility than that imposed by France's Ministry of Education.[11] Diwan's alternative format appealed to parents who opposed the immobility of the main system. André and Gwenaëlle Jezequel articulate these views. Gwenaëlle echoes to a certain extent the views of the militant Bretons. She says, for instance, that she had always known that their children would go to Diwan, adding that they did not deliberate; the choice was self-evident. Her husband explained that as Diwan grows in importance and advances in its desire to become recognized by France's Ministry of Education, he worries that the school will lose its specificity. He stated simply that Diwan should always remain a different school. He explained that the main appeal of Diwan was its ability to create distinct individuals with specific differences. Bernard and Yvonne Puill-Stéphan give voice to these concerns, too. Their teenage children have received the totality of their education within the Diwan system. While they hope that Diwan will be integrated into the national system of public education, they want to be sure that its specific pedagogy will be maintained. One of the many benefits they ascribe to Diwan is its different teaching methods. Rather than the race for results that dominates France's curriculum-based instruction (Malsang 2002, 14), Diwan emphasizes the individual's overall development. Sonia Lutz gave the clearest explanation of this pedagogical choice. A native of Germany, she married a Breton and moved to Brittany. Now divorced, she is a strong advocate of the Diwan school in Morlaix. The experimental pedagogy that emphasizes overall development rather than specific results is what she likes about her school.

These three main parental motivations for choosing a Diwan education indicate that the Diwan education appeals to a wide subset of Brittany's population. Many of the parents admitted that the Diwan school was chosen almost by accident. This adds credence to the concerns of some families that the original values that defined Diwan are being weakened by a less committed generation of Diwan parents. However, this impression belies a more fundamental value shared by all the families. All the Diwan families stressed that choices are needed in France. Whether it is to learn the language of the region, or to participate in an early bilingual immersion curriculum, or to follow another scholarly rhythm, all the parents selected Diwan because it was the only program that gave them something different.

In essence, the Diwan parents are challenging the centralization of the French nation-state and the uniformity it encourages within its borders. For this reason, many supporters of minority languages also find the European Union (EU) to be a promising development. Camille O'Reilly claims that the formation of the European Union is "[o]ne of the truly significant developments in relation to minority languages in the post-war decades" (2001, 11). As she explains, "stateless languages" tend to be seen as threats to the nation-state which seeks homogeneity and standardization (2001, 8). Consequently, European unification can help minority language groups circumvent the tyranny of the nation-state by providing another governmental forum for minority languages and by allowing for more cooperation "between minority groups across borders" (2001, 11). While Stephen May agrees, he also notes that "the record of the EU with respect to minority languages is not a strong one," and points out that 48 of its minority languages are seriously threatened (2003, 215). Nevertheless, he sees promise because the EU offers an alternative governmental structure to the nation-state. He explains that "such organisations can also clearly act both as catalysts and as intermediaries in relation to other forms of identity" (2003, 215). He points to Wales, Scotland, and Catalonia as regions that have thrived under more autonomy with respect to their nation-state (2003, 217). However, in reference to one country, May tempers his optimism, saying that opposition to minority language rights is "perhaps most clearly evident in France, the first and archetypal modern nation-state" (2003, 215). Gabrielle Hogan-Brun and Stefan Wolff share the same thoughts. They note that since the end of the Cold War in Europe, group rights have emerged as a complement to individual rights (2003, 3-4). However, they single out France as a country especially resistant to minority language rights since it recognizes the value of minority language rights in principle, but does not grant them any rights within France (2003, 4).

Because of France's resistance, these happenings in France's northwesternmost region may indicate a growing desire within Europe's most centralized country to begin real experiments with decentralization, and to grant a certain degree of autonomy to its regions. Over two-hundred years ago the French Revolution sought to eliminate privilege and to bring equality to all citizens of the Republic. By leveling the political landscape, the Republicans imposed the same rules on every surface of France. From the Revolution to the Terror to the Fifth Republic, the thread of uniformity connects these disparate moments in French history. The centralized bureaucracy of France denies difference, since variety resonates with privilege and undercuts France's universalizing mission (Rosenblum [1986] describes this as a particularly French type of colonialisation). Now, however, as France looks forward to a millenium dominated by European unity, the homogeneity prescribed by these revolutionary values weighs heavily on the French mind. The Revolution's universalizing stand for equality meant that no one could be different. The luster of this revolutionary image now wears a patina of doubt as European nations become more interconnected. The regions of France view the unification as a way of bypassing Paris and asserting their own unique, privileged identity. This is what Anicet Le Pors fears and what Hughes Moutouh applauds. Diwan's struggles to teach children in its own way has planted a seed. Germination has begun, but will the roots spread deep enough into the cracks between Brittany and France to promise a new era of particularism in France?


Braudel, Fernand. The Identity of France: History and Environment. Vol. 1. Trans. Siân Reynolds. New York: Harper and Row, 1988.

Broudic, Fañch. La Pratique du breton de l'Ancien Régime à nos jours. Rennes: PU de Rennes, 1995.
__________, Histoire de la langue bretonne. Rennes: Ouest-France, 1999.

Corbett, James. Through French Windows. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1994.

Diwan 2004. Diwan Breizh. 17 December 2004

Le Coadic, Ronan. L'Identité bretonne. Rennes: Terre de Brume, 1998.
__________, "Langue et modernité" Klask (7): 2001, 45-50. identity/galleg/langue_modernite.htm Downloaded 20 Sept 2002.
__________, "Modernité aigŁe et minorité" galleg/langue_modernite.htm Downloaded 20 Sept 2002.

Gemie, S. "The Politics of Language: Debates and Identities in Contemporary Brittany" FCS 8 (2002): 145-164.

Hagège, Claude. "Le point de vue de Claude Hagège" 28 May 1988. Downloaded 17 December 2002.

Hogan-Brun, Gabrielle, and Stefan Wolff. "Minority Languages in Europe: An Introduction to the Current Debate." Minority Languages in Europe: Frameworks, Status, Prospects. Ed. Gabrielle Hogan-Brun and Stefan Wolff. New York: Palgrave, 2003. 3-15.

Le Pors, Anicet. "Diwan et la Charte" Le Figaro. 19 Jan 2002. Downloaded 18 Oct 2002.

Malsang, Isabelle. "Le système éducatif français n'est pas parfait" Journal français. September 2002, p. 14.

May, Stephen. "Language, Nationalism, and Democracy in Europe." Minority Languages in Europe: Frameworks, Status, Prospects. Ed. Gabrielle Hogan-Brun and Stefan Wolff. New York: Palgrave, 2003. 211-32.

Moutouh, Hughes. "Communautarisme: Les ambiguités de l'identité linguistique" Le Figaro. 28 Nov 2001. Downloaded 18 Oct 2002 through Lexis-Nexis.

O'Reilly, Camille. "Introduction: Minority Languages, Ethnicity and the State in the European Union." Minority Languages in the European Union. Ed. Camille O'Reilly. New York: Palgrave, 2001. Vol. 1 of Language, Ethnicity and the State. 2 vols. 2001. 1-19.

Perazzi, Jean-Charles. Diwan: Vingt ans d'enthousiasme, de doute, et d'espoir. Spézet: Coop Breizh, 1998.

Le Projet Pédagogique de Diwan. May 1992. Downloaded 17 December 2002. "Rentrée difficile pour les écoles Diwan" Les Echos. 5 Sep 2002. Downloaded 18 Oct 2002.

Rosenblum, Mort. Mission to Civilize. New York: Harcourt, 1986.

"A New School Year for the Breton Language in Brittany" Bro Nevez 92 (2004): 2-4.

Simon, Jean-Pierre. La Bretonnité: Une ethnicité problématique. Rennes: Terre de Brume, 1999.


[1] All translations, unless otherwise indicated, are my own.

[2] A newspaper article reports that these 2780 students equates to 6.5% increase for the Diwan system ("Rentrée difficile pour les écoles Diwan" Les Echos. 5 Sep 2002). Le Figaro reports that instruction of regional languages (Breton, Basque, and Corsican) concerns only 1.5% of France's 12 million students (Court, Marielle and Guillaume Perrault. "Education: Jack Lang a donné hier le coup d'envoi au développement du corse ou du breton; Les langues régionales entrent à l'école" Le Figaro. 26 Apr 2001). Diwan's 2780 students constitute barely a drip in the bucket of French education.

[3] Hughes Moutouh wrote in an editorial in Le Figaro that the decision of the Conseil d'Etat defended an authoritarian view of equality at the expense of personal liberty. In the same newspaper, Christophe Boutin countered, comparing the integration of Diwan to subsidized feudalism that destroys equality ("Communautarisme: Les ambiguités de l'identité linguistique" Le Figaro. 28 Nov 2001). Similarly, Anicet Le Pors agrees with the Conseil d'Etat's decision, noting that equality depends on the rights of citizens not of various communities. ("Diwan et la Charte" Le Figaro. 19 Jan 2002). Libération presents the ideas of Jean-Luc Melenchon who bristles at the idea of Diwan's integration. He argues that such an act would go against the principle of secularism since it would support schools that would exclude those who cannot speak Breton (Emmanuel Davidenkoff. "'Diwan, une école contraire à l'idéal laïque'; Jean-Luc Melenchon, ministre de l'Enseignement professionnel, en désaccord avec Jack Lang" Libération. 4 Dec 2001).

[4] See Diwan's website for names and locations of the schools at

[5] Before Diwan's first school, there were two other efforts. During the second world war Yann Kerlann and Yann Sohier opened a skol Blistin that lasted one year. The second project lasted from 1957 to 1961. Begun by Armand Le Calvez, this skol Saint-Erwan enrolled 20 elementary-school-aged children. (Perazzi 16).

[6] For a detailed breakdown of the enrollment figures, see "A New School Year for the Breton Language in Brittany" Bro Nevez 92 (2004).

[7] I use the term militant Bretons to designate those who struggle for the protection of Breton culture. Ronan Le Coadic points out in a personal communication that the expression should be used carefully because its ambiguity has a stigmatizing potential. He says that the word militant is used in French to designate those who fight to defend an idea or a cause. However, he points out that expression militant breton is used, in particular by the press, to cover a wide range of activities, from the parents of children enrolled in bilingual schools, to the defenders of any number of cultural particularities, to the members of clandestine separatist groups who resort to violence. Because of this last example, the expression tends to alarm the general public who may associate it only with the military connotations. (Le Coadic, Ronan. E-mail to author. 28 Sept. 2004.)

[8] Non-Diwan institutions include private Catholic schools and public schools. Details can be found in "A New School Year for the Breton Language in Brittany" Bro Nevez 92 (2004).

[9] The most recent is Et la Bretagne? Héritage, identité, projets edited by Nathalie Dugalès, Ronan Le Coadic, and Fabrice Patez (Rennes: PU de Rennes, 2004). In addition, Ronan Le Coadic's Bretagne: Le Fruit défendu (Rennes: PU de Rennes, 2002) and his L'Identité bretonne (Rennes: Terre de Brume, 1998) as well as Pierre-Jean Simon's La Bretonnité: Une ethnicité problématique (Rennes: Terre de Brume, 1999) give insights onto the status of the Breton identity in contemporary society.

[10] S. Gemie's article "The politics of language: debates and identities in contemporary Brittany" provides an excellent overview of the various arguments for the defense of Breton. Gemie speaks of four distinct rationales, suggesting quite convincingly that this is an engaged but fractured population. My study focuses on a similar topic, Diwan as a vehicle of defense against the disappearance of the Breton language, but comes to a different conclusion. The fractured community becomes unified within the community that Diwan forms. xii In English, diwan means sprout or seed.

[11] Le Coadic points this out in "Langue et modernité" by noting that in addition to the novelty of the Breton language, the school uses an innovative, progressive (progressiste) pedagogy (2).

Copyright © Lars O. Erickson, 2005
This edition copyright © Celtic Cultural Studies, 2005
ISSN 1468-6074

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