Location: Breton peninsula, western France
Population: 2.5 million; 500,000 Breton speakers
% of population: 4.5% of French population; 20% of Breton population are Breton speakers
Religion: Catholic
Language: French, Breton (mainly in western areas)

The Bretons are the inhabitants of Brittany, an area deeply influenced by the Celtic settlers from Britain (hence the name Brittany) who arrived from the fourth century AD, fleeing from Saxon expansionism. The language Breton is close to both the Welsh and the now extinct Cornish language and has affinities with other Celtic languages. Breton speakers are now a minority within Brittany and are probably about 20% of the population of the peninsula.

The Breton kingdoms retained their independence for many centuries but after a successful military campaign they were annexed to France by treaty in 1532. However they were able to retain a parliament and administrative autonomy. This autonomy was destroyed in the French Revolution when the National Assembly abolished the special rights and privileges of the provinces in favour of equal rights for all areas; Brittany then became, as did the rest of France, divided into government departments administered from the centre. An uprising against the revolutionary forces resulted in a scorched earth policy and thousands of deaths. Since that time Brittany has remained part of France, currently consisting of five departments with a population of about 2.5 million. In 1956 four of these departments were formed into one of the country’s 22 regions for the purpose of economic planning. In 1974 a regional assembly was established, which was elected indirectly and had powers over the region’s budget.

French domination also brought with it the French language. In 1539 the Ordinance of Villiers-Cotterets required that French be used exclusively for law, contracts and all official acts and this was further emphasized after the Revolution. Nevertheless the isolation of Brittany meant that the Breton language continued in use by the peasantry well into the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, along with a strong and distinctive Celtic tradition. But since that time there has been a strong cultural assimilation and language shift towards French. In 1886 there were an estimated 1.3 million Breton speakers in western Brittany, but by 1974 this number had halved to about 665,000; about 44% of the population of western Brittany. Only about half of this number spoke Breton on a daily basis, mostly older people. In the eastern half of Brittany French is the everyday language. One of the main reasons for the decline of the language was the deliberate policy of educating all children in French and suppression of the use of Breton in schools.

Not surprisingly there has been a movement to restore the use of the Breton language. This has achieved some success and Breton is now taught in some schools and colleges, although it is still subservient to French. There are evening classes, summer schools and correspondence courses, dozens of small Breton language publications and some radio and TV programmes in Breton. Yet it is reported that government clerks may refuse to issue birth certificates to parents who wish to give their children certain Breton names. There has also been a series of political movements aimed at achieving independence for Brittany, either within the French federal system, notably the Comité d’étude et de liason des intérêts Bretons (CELIB) and more radical political parties such as the Strol-lard ar Vro (SAV) (the Breton Party) and left-wing groups. Terrorist organizations such as the Armée Républicaine Bretonne (ARB) and the Front Libération de la Bretagne (FLB) have been responsible for a number of bombings.

Few Bretons today see independence as a realistic option and the only Breton political party which has done well in electoral terms is the Union Démocratique Bretonne (UDB), which has performed well in local elections, and which seeks a popularly elected Breton Assembly. Although many Bretons may sympathize with the aims of the bombers, few agree with their methods. While successive French governments have promised to respect the rights of linguistic minorities this has made little real impact and the Breton language will probably continue to decline as an everyday tongue. However young Breton intellectuals, often living in Paris or elsewhere, seem determined not to let the language die. Economic factors continue to discriminate against Brittany, which in the mid-1970s was one of the poorest areas of France and was developing at a slower rate than the rest of the economy. High unemployment, low wages and emigration seem likely to continue.

(See also Alsatians; )