Location: Alsace-Lorraine, north-east France
Population: 1.55 million (Alsace); 300,000-400,000 (Thionese Lorraine)
% of Population: Alsatian speakers : 75% of Alsace population; 50% of Thionese Lorraine population
Language: Alsatian dialect of German, German, French
The Alsatians are the inhabitants of the region of Alsace and part of Lorraine on France’s border with Germany and Switzerland, which has changed hands between France and Germany five times in the last 250 years. The Alsatians have a strong German tradition. The oldest known poem in the German language was written in Alsace, German humanism flourished there and leaders of the German peasant revolt of 1525 came from the region.
Alsace first became French under the Treaty of Westphalia but continued to enjoy a high degree of autonomy. After 1789, however, the region was brought into line with other departments. Most links with Germany were severed and a decree was passed that anyone who could not speak official French would be shot. Alsace was annexed to Germany after the Franco-Prussian war in 1871 and reverted to France after the Treaty of Versailles. In 1940 it was taken over by Germany and at that time Alsatians suffered violence and discrimination at the hands of the Nazis. German was to be learned within two years by all citizens and all notices and official signs were to be in German. After World War II Alsace once again became a French province and the teaching of German was forbidden. The number of French-speakers increased greatly and only 20% of Alsatians now read and write in Alsatian German, which has no official recognition; however, Alsatian continues to be used in everyday life and family situations, more commonly among older people, rural dwellers and the working class than among younger professionals. German is taught in elementary and secondary schools as a separate subject. On the other hand, French predominates in the social and official life of the region and it is the language of public administration. Only some older people today lack any competency in French and large numbers of people are effectively bilingual, a process assisted by press, radio and television from Germany and Switzerland.
Although the Alsatian dialect is gradually being forgotten there has been a revival of interest amongst Alsatians and courses in Alsatian literature and history are now taught in people’s education colleges. Alsatian newspapers have also been started with the aim of preserving the culture of Alsace. The Mouvement Regionaliste d’Alsace-Lorraine campaigns for a decentralized France within a federal Europe and for both French and German to be the official languages of Alsace. Alsatians have also called for a greater say in the economic affairs of Alsace, a region heavily involved with the German iron, steel and coal industries because of its location. It is felt by some that the interests of large — often multi-national — industries sometimes supersede those of the people of Alsace. A growing number of young Alsatians cross the border daily to work in Germany and Switzerland for considerably higher wages than in France. Increasing calls for the government to take a more responsible approach to the region’s economy have not as yet met with much success and Alsace continues to lag behind other regions of France economically.
(See also Bretons)