Paris (AFP) - French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe has clamped down on attempts to make French more female-friendly, issuing a ban on so-called "inclusive writing" in official texts, according to a memo seen by AFP on Tuesday.
Moves to end the linguistic dominance of the masculine over the feminine have sparked impassioned debate in France, coming as a flurry of revelations about sexual harassment and assault continue to dominate global headlines.
At the centre of the row is the growing use of formulations to embrace both genders in the plural form, which requires full-stops being inserted in the word -- to the horror of purists.
For example, the word for a mixed-gender group of "readers" is usually written as "lecteurs", even if the women outnumber the men, rather than with the feminine plural "lectrices".
Using inclusive writing, the word would be written as "lecteur.rice.s".
In a memo to his ministers seen on Tuesday, Philippe issued a diktat, insisting: "The masculine (form) is a neutral form which should be used for terms liable to apply to women".
Stressing the need to use formal language in legally binding texts, he demanded government ministries avoid inclusive writing, "notably for reasons of intelligibility and clarity".
The ministers were also instructed to ensure that the traditional form be used in all public services under their authority.
The prime minister's office told AFP that the memo aimed to "end the controversy" but assured that the government was still "resolutely committed to strengthening equality between women and men."
The debate appeared set to rumble on, however, with "defenseur.e.s" (defenders) of inclusive writing saying the French language must keep up with changing times.
- Purist resistance -
Several ministries, universities and trade unions have recently been using the gender-neutral form, but it largely escaped public notice until it turned up in an elementary school history textbook recently.
The book notably refers to farmers as "agriculteur.rice.s" and shop owners as "commercant.e.s"
An appalled Academie Francaise -- gatekeeper of the French language -- went on the offensive, warning that the punctuated "aberration" would make French too complex, putting it "in mortal danger".
Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer also weighed in, saying French "should not be exploited for fighting battles no matter how legitimate they are."
This is not the first drive to try make French more balanced -- moves that have routinely been resisted by the members of the Academie Francaise, known as "The Immortals".
In 2015, France's High Council for Equality Between Women and Men issued a guide urging public bodies to avoid sexual stereotypes by, for example, using feminine forms for "firefighter" and "author" where applicable.
Some critics such as philosopher Raphael Enthoven have objected to what they see as a prescriptive approach to the language spoken by some 275 million people worldwide.
They say language usage should be allowed to evolve naturally over time.