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Brittany, Another Independence-Seeking European Region

Submitted by on January 10, 2014 – 5:47 pm 24 Comments |  
Brittany in northwestern France is one of several regions in Europe that is seeking increased autonomy, if not complete independence, and instructive parallels with Catalan independence movement emerge. In both regions, the uniqueness of local language and culture is the main declared reason for seeking greater autonomy, yet economic reasons appear to be as significant, if not more so.

Unlike the rest of France, Brittany is a traditionally Celtic-speaking region. The Breton language is closely related to Irish Gaelic, Scottish Gaelic, Welsh, and Cornish—all limited to the British Isles. Historically, most of what is now France formerly spoke another Celtic language, Gaulish, which was eventually supplanted by romana lingua, the Latin vernacular of the Roman conquerors. As discussed in more detail in an earlier GeoCurrents post on Breton, both Breton and Gaulish are members of the Brythonic (or “P-Celtic”) branch of the Celtic language family. However, Breton is not a direct descendant of Gaulish or even a particularly close relative. Instead, the Bretons are descendants of refugees who fled Celtic Britain to escape the Anglo-Saxon invaders of the fifth century CE. For centuries, Breton was marginalized, as the local nobility and later the city dwellers adopted French as their everyday language, with Breton remaining the language of the peasants and artisans. In an attempt to build a centralized nation-state, the French government suppressed Breton and other regional languages, pejoratively referred to as patois. As a result, Breton is now highly endangered as fewer and fewer people speak it or pass it on to their children. More recently, efforts have been instituted to promote the use of Breton in the schools, media, and other areas of public life. Hopes for its future are further raised by the fact that the study of Breton is gaining popularity as an academic subject: Harvard has recently become the first American university to teach Breton.


But linguistic and cultural considerations are not the only reasons behind the region’s independence movement, as the economy plays an important role too. Brittany is not a particularly prosperous region: according to the Wikipedia, its total GDP of $112.7 billion in 2011 was only a quarter of that of Île-de-France (Paris region), putting Brittany in the 7th place among the French regions. Its per capita GDP of $34,814 is about half of that in Île-de-France, making it the 14th of the 27 regions and overseas departments. Although Brittany trails in terms of per capita GDP behind such richer regions as Rhône-Alpes ($42,503 per capita), Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur ($40,649 per capita), and Alsace ($39,621 per capita), its figures are still ahead of those of Lorraine ($32,574 GDP per capita), Picardy ($32,460), and Limousin ($32,236). Though it is by no means the poorest region in France, Brittany has been particularly hard-hit by the global economic crisis and competition from abroad, which crippled its intensive agriculture and food-processing industry. Its total GDP fell from $117.6 billion in 2008, and the per capita GDP plunged from $37,196.


In response, Brittany attempted to modernize and diversify its economy, particularly by developing the commercial sector and investing more in tourist infrastructure. As highlighted by the humorous “Map of France according to the Bretons” reproduced on the left, many in Brittany wish they still possessed Mont Saint-Michel, a UNESCO World Heritage Site visited by more than 3 million people each year, which Brittany lost to Normandy in 933 CE, after merely sixty-six years of Breton possession.


Brittany’s attempts at modernizing its economy could be helped by the 2 billion euros that the French government has pledged to invest in the region, a promise made in response to the recent protests against a proposed “ecotax”. As France is struggling to meet demands from the European Union to reduce its state deficit, a new tax was proposed on heavy goods vehicles weighing over 3.5 tonnes. Farmers’ unions in Brittany argue that the tax, which would apply on all heavy vehicles transporting goods around France, would disproportionately hit Brittany, a relatively remote region. Moreover, the entire northwestern region of France has experienced a particularly intense job crisis in the farming and food-processing industry. In November 2013, thousands of enraged food-industry workers “clad in red caps reminiscent of 17th century protests” (see image on the left) descended on western town of Quimper, according to media reports. About a thousand farmers set fire to tires and blockaded a tax-collection booth, sparking clashes and exchanges of stones and teargas between demonstrators and police that resulted in numerous injuries, with one man losing his hand. After farmers and food-sector workers expressed outrage, the government suspended the planned tax, and in December 2013, French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault signed an agreement to invest two billion euros in aid to help workers declared redundant, to restructure agriculture to make it more environmentally friendly, and to boost the region’s economy. Whether this investment achieves its purpose of curbing the independence movement, remains to be seen. For now, a narrow majority of elected representatives in Brittany endorsed the package, but right-wing and centrist MPs and councilors opposed it and boycotted the signing ceremony. Calls were also made for the French government to finally ratify the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, as promised during President François Hollande’s election campaign.

Brittany’s economic woes might be compounded by the unfavorable weather unleashed on France since Christmas. As a polar vortex brought record low temperatures to the US Northeast and Midwest, and as California is experiencing an unprecedented drought, the residents of  Brittany have battled their share of bad weather. In the first week of 2014, the region has been placed on “red alert” after high tides coupled with torrential downpours flooded coastal streets and washed through riverside towns. Around 50 homes and businesses were affected by water levels that reached up to 1.5 meters, and a woman was killed when strong winds uprooted a tree that crushed the car she was riding in. The storm has also affected Normandy and the Loire Valley, as well as Corsica; the Météo France weather authority also predicted heavy snowfall in the Auvergne Mountains and warned of the danger of avalanches in the Alps and Pyrenees. Harsh weather has also affected French overseas territories, particularly the Island of Reunion in the Indian Ocean, which has been battered by a powerful cyclone, the island’s most extreme storm in 20 years. Winds up to 150 kilometers an hour uprooted trees, caused heavy flooding, and cut power for 180,000 customers and running water for 80,000 homes.

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  • SirBedevere

    So, maybe Catalunya is not such a great comparison. I believe there are 7 million or so speakers of Catalan, while the population of the region is about 7.5 million. There are maybe 200,000 speakers of Breton in a region of 4.5 million people or so. Catalunya, moreover, is one of those wealthier regions resentful to transfers to other parts of the country, unlike Brittany. Maybe some place like Wales or Frisia would be a better comparison.

    • Asya Pereltsvaig

      Indeed. It occurred to me after I put up the post… My only point about the parallelism was the declared cultural/linguistic reasons but the underlying economic reasons…

      • SirBedevere

        And in that way, I guess they are more similar than I had thought they were.

  • Verpadoro

    Yes, I agree with SirBedevere. The situation in Britanny and in Catalunya can’t be a reliable comparison.
    In Britanny, nearly nobody is able to speak the language, except youngsters from Diwan school, and Britanny activist.

    There is on movement for more autonomy, but no for independance. An extremist group was for the independance in 80′s-90′s, but now, this is for the autonomy. They are famous for the attack of… a McDonald.

    Good article.

    • Asya Pereltsvaig

      Thank you, Verpadoro. I agree that the differences in the actual use of the language are quite major between the two regions. I wonder if the comparison with the Basque Country would have been more apt, as they too claim to speak Basque more than they actually do…

      • D. Schwartz

        Maybe more like Cornwall on a cultural level since I think Cornish has slightly higher use in comparison to Breton.

        • Asya Pereltsvaig

          Hmmm, last I’ve checked Cornish has no native speakers at all ( as opposed to Breton, which does (

          • D. Schwartz

            Ah my mistake, I took the revival of Cornish to mean there were native speakers which seems to be not very possible.

          • Asya Pereltsvaig

            Well, Hebrew was so revived, so it’s not IMpossible…

          • D. Schwartz

            I guess if a language is revived long enough we would have a second generation raised in that language and suddenly we have a native speaking language base. Never quite thought of it that way, but it makes sense.

            Also according to conversation with my Jewish relations, Hebrew was a rabbinical language for centuries in Europe. Which would imply that while there wasn’t a set of native speakers there was a good number of fluent speakers regularly being taught and passing on knowledge. Creating the base for a revival of the language.

          • Asya Pereltsvaig

            Indeed, Hebrew was the religious language for centuries. Still, nobody spoke it natively and that’s a huge difference. And let’s not forget that it was only men who learned to read and recite in Hebrew. There’s a reason that Yiddish was known as “mame loshen” (mother tongue)!

          • D. Schwartz

            Very true.

  • Reticulator

    How autonomous do they want to be? Do they want to run and fund their own social welfare programs, for example? Or is this something that’s not very well defined at this point?

    • Asya Pereltsvaig

      Not very clearly defined, as far as I can tell. Mostly, they’d like to have more ability to make their own decisions, but I wonder to what extent autonomy plus membership in the EU would give them that anyway… And no, I’ve not seen ANY regions that want autonomy wanting to run their own welfare programs without getting any funds from the state… Go figure! ;)

      • Katell

        As a breton, my answer is first autonomy, then devolution, then independance. We are not french. Our brothers are up there on the islands, and that is how i was raised, that is my identity. The french mock us as much as the english mock the scots or the welsh. All the personal familly history i was taught is that i do not speak breton because the last speaker of breton, my great grandmother, was taught to be ashamed of her native tongue. The same goes for my father in law, we all have the deepest regret for what the french did to our language. They keep undermining it by treating it as a minor patois, and everywhere in france i hear that pejorative term. We have strong claims and we have it in our heart to fight and resist being wiped out, we always will, and it is neccessary to go through a process leading to independance to preserve the beauty of our heritage. France has many qualities, but it is killing history and heritage by centralising and crushing regionalism.

        • jemblue

          “The French” didn’t kill the language. The Bretons did it themselves by no longer speaking it at home. Don’t blame the government for that. There are many parts of the world in which people speak a different language than what they are taught in school. The reality is that most Bretons do not have the rigid “us or them” mentality you seem to have – they accept being both Breton and French, and speak French because it is their country’s language.

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  • Mael

    Briton movement is essentially cultural and less political. The autonomists get very low results at elections.

    Briton language severly decrease in the 20th century and the only speakers are the old people and the very few young ones (but they learn it at school).

    • Asya Pereltsvaig

      Thank you for your comments, Mael

  • Gearalt Ua Fathaigh

    I think the major issue for Breton regionalists/nationalist is the “re-unification” of a Breton region based on the boundaries of the old Duchy. The French placed much of southeastern Brittany, including Nantes/Naoned in the Loire-Atlantique region…

  • Gearalt Ua Fathaigh

    The Cornish language revival might be best described as a mini-revival – a movement with modest ambitions and significant achievements for that; unlike Irish Gaelic – a revival with grandiose ambitions and little accomplishment (of same ambitions). My local town (in Western Ireland/ the Wesht) Galway/Gaillimh is twinned with Lorient in Brittany; and they regularly attend St. Patrick’s Day festivities here….

  • Gearalt Ua Fathaigh

    one of the foremost authorities on Cornish is Dr. Nicholas Williams, a retired professor here in Ireland – also Cornwall and Brittany nationalist movements based their national anthems on the Welsh anthem…

  • Yann-Vadezour Etreg

    A recent poll conducted in Brittany revealed that most Bretons aged between 18-30 favor independence for their ancestral land. This has nothing to do with their proficiency in Breton : they simply know that they form a different nation with a culture that is very different from French culture. The exact same phenomenon can be observed in Ireland where a huge majority of people are native speakers of English with little knowledge of Gaelic, yet see themselves as a nation which is culturally distinct from the English. It is but a question of time until we Bretons break free from France. This, however, will hardly be enough, as we shan’t enjoy true sovereignty before shaking off the anglosaxon masonic yoke that is slowly crushing all of us Europeans to death. Yet people still have to understand what lies behind Brussels and the seemingly free markets of Europe : the EU is deceitfully and covertly fomenting secessions that will bring Catalans, Venetians and Scots nowhere near their much longed-for freedom and cultural revival.

    • Asya Pereltsvaig

      My big question for all of these is whether they would be able to survive on their own. With Catalonia, I think the answer may be yes, but Scotland and Venice I am less sure. Even less so about Brittany. Last I’ve checked it was the richer region, like Catalonia within Spain… To have cultural autonomy is all great but cutting off the supply lines may be more detrimental than anything…

      • katell

        The GDP was higher before, and our major claims about the loss over the years is the way the french government has “ruled” over our economy. Centralisation in France is far from regional reality, and our claim is that we know better how we could improve this. Moreover, the 4 french-departments of brittany alone has a GDP per capita in the average of the EU. With Nantes, we are even stronger. We have economic ties to other countries, we have an export potential that is quite high, and quite a bunch of brains as we have the highest average IQ in france. Not unlike Ireland, independance could lead us to an economy revival. There is much desinformation about the risks we would be incurring by opting out of france, the truth is, the actual centralised model is failing in europe. It is wiser to leave people who have a more knowlegable idea of their region take matters. It is a right in europe, yet ignored by France.
        That being said, there are also much contreveries as to how France annexed Brittany, much claims lead to the possibility that Brittany was wrongfully taken.