Good question! This is always seen as a bit of a grey area for non-French natives living out here, and you can find as many articles saying yes as you can saying no. Because we’re nice, we’ve decoded all the jargon and set it all out for you. If you live in France and have a website, read on…
The relevant French law is loi n°94-665 of the 4th of August 1994, also known as the Loi Toubon. This law states that all written, spoken and audiovisual promotional material in France must be delivered in French.
The law was partly drafted to protect the French language from “Anglicisation”. It states that English words often used in French such as “le marketing, or “le web” can only be used in promotional materials if a French translation is also provided. Another purpose of the law is to protect French consumers by ensuring they are able to understand all commercial marketing communications to which they may be exposed.
Where it gets confusing…
The law does not explicitly mention websites when listing examples of marketing materials. Some have interpreted this to mean that they’re exempt. However, the law specifically states that French must be used for all publicly-displayed written messages or advertisements.
“…toute inscription ou annonce apposée sur la voie publique, dans un lieu ouvert au public”.
Given that websites are by nature promotional material, and given that they’re publicly accessible, this description certainly sounds like the law covers websites too.
Or does it though…?
This question was put to the law’s author, Jacques Toubon, the Ministre de la Culture at the time. His reponse was interesting. He replied that, while it’s true that websites are publicly accessible, you nonetheless need both an internet connection and a computer in order to access them. For him, this meant they couldn’t be considered in the same category as, for example, a billboard in the street.
“S’il est vrai qu’un site internet est accessible à quiconque possède un ordinateur et une connexion à la toile *, on ne peut cependant pas le considérer comme un lieu ouvert au public tel que l’entend le législateur qui cite sur le même plan la voie publique et les transports en commun.”
(* note his deliberate avoidance of the more current term “web” 🙂 here )
He therefore stipulated that the law applies only to physical spaces within French territory.
“…qu’aux lieux qui sont physiquement localisés sur le territoire français”.
His logic was that otherwise, the law would apply to all websites available to French internet users – or in other words, the entire web! Seeing as asking every website author on Earth to provide a French version of their website was a non-starter, he had a good point.
Are you selling something?
However, other stipulations of the law also come into play when it comes to the promotion of goods and services. The law states that whenever a company makes any attempt to promote its goods or services, regardless of the advertising format used, it must do so in French.
“l’emploi du français est requis dans le cas où une entreprise présente, sur quelque support que ce soit, des biens ou des services dans le but de les commercialiser sur le territoire français”
It provides only one exemption to this: if the head office of the company concerned is not based on French territory, the law does not apply.
So, if you have a personal website, you’re absolutely fine to have it in whatever language you want. However, if you have a business with its head office in France, whose website promotes its products or services, then the Loi Toubon applies to you.
Lastly, as Mr Toubon himself concluded, beyond mere legal considerations, there is an obvious commercial advantage to all businesses based in France in ensuring their websites are accessible to French speakers…