Written by Jenny Bennett, CNN
A call by Quebec’s premier for French-speaking CEOs of major multinational corporations to speak the language has had the response of frustration — and this particular business-school drama has reached international headlines.
Prime Minister Francois Legault says those in these positions of power should be required to speak French or have a “mandatory” language requirement for promotions.
Stephen Sommerfield, the head of PricewaterhouseCoopers’ northern office in Quebec, has condemned the demand and shown his opposition to efforts to require French speakers.
“Since 2004, I have not expected my job to be affected by my understanding of French,” Sommerfield said on Twitter. “That has been supported by my family, I live a bilingual life in Canada and I have been asked to speak French on numerous occasions in interviews, meetings and interactions with my colleagues.”
He added: “I’m a value-added benefit to the firm as a bilingual leader.”
On its website, PwC says that in “some countries where employees are limited to a single language, Canadians, who speak both English and French, are required to speak one language.”
After speaking to CNN Business France, La Presse reports that prominent French-speaking businessman Jacques Gudin denounced the motion, calling it “a stain on the country’s conscience.”
Legault added a caveat to his proposal. He suggested that the “French leaders” he was speaking about would only have to speak French when working in the French-speaking province of Quebec.
A growing number of Quebec residents want the province to adopt its own language. Proposals to modernize French-speaking laws are gaining traction, with a referendum on separating from Canada scheduled for October 1.
The idea of focusing on the language of business may seem counterintuitive in the wake of the political upheaval that has rocked Quebec, with the province’s separatist Parti Quebecois party badly split between two competing alliances.
“Is it necessary to speak in French to lead a multinational corporation?” asked Arun Chaudhry, a professor of political science at the HEC Montreal business school. “In the cases of French-speaking leaders, the answer would be: ‘Probably not.’
“By imposing French language requirements it is shifting towards the elite, excluding those in the provinces without Francophone majority, and signaling a paternalistic intent by the state,” he added.