Brittany, Another Independence-Seeking European Region

Nov 18, 2015 by

[Note to Readers: This post was originally published in January 2014.]

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 my earlier 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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