ECMI Minorities Blog. Francophone, Francophile, and Gallo-Romance peripheries in Piedmont and the Aosta Valley

Mattia Bottino
© / Alessandro Tortora

*** The blog posts are prepared by the authors in their personal capacity. The views expressed in the blog posts are the sole responsibility of the authors concerned and do not necessarily reflect the view of the European Centre for Minority Issues. ***

Author: Mattia Bottino  |

 Mattia Bottino is a PhD Student at the University of Bologna - Department of Political and Social Sciences, and Junior Researcher at the Institute for Comparative Federalism at Eurac Research in Bolzano/Bozen (Italy). He holds an MA in International Relations and a BA in Political, Social and International Sciences from the University of Bologna. He has obtained a Second Level Master’s Degree in Participatory Processes, Communities and Networks of Proximity from the same university. His research interests include deliberative democracy at large, as well as participatory mechanisms in public policymaking. His additional fields of interest comprise historical linguistics and linguistic rights, national minority rights, and minority nationalism in Europe.


2023 marks the 80th anniversary of the ‘Declaration of the representatives of Alpine populations’ (also called the Chivasso Declaration).[1] The ‘Declaration’ was written by key figures of the antifascist resistance of Piedmont and the Aosta Valley and foresaw a federal and republican reorganization of post-war Italy. With implicit reference to Piedmont and the Aosta Valley, it postulated the acknowledgment of ‘small nationalities’ and ‘minor ethnic groups’, the right to self-government of Alpine valleys, the protection of minority languages and therefore the right to receiving education in one’s mother tongue.

Piedmont and the Aosta Valley represent a multilingual space straddling France and Italy. Here, several Gallo-Romance languages are spoken either as native languages (such as Occitan and Franco-Provençal) or as a language of culture (as in the case of French). With the Francophone character of the Aosta Valley being well-known, a better understanding of Piedmont’s linguistic landscape is required. What is indeed the current state of those Franco- and Gallo-Romance peripheries within the borders of Italy, and how have their identities evolved? Also, what is their degree of linguistic vitality and recognition? To respond to these questions, some historical and linguistic context needs to be provided.  

Piedmont: an ‘amphibious country[2]  

The vernaculars of the westernmost section of Gallia Cisalpina (today’s Piedmont) resulted from the Latin spoken by Roman settlers on a Gallic substratum, just as in most parts of France. In the Middle Ages, (Old) Piedmontese (the language) developed in harmony with the neighbouring Oïl and Òc languages in the cisalpine Savoyard possessions, the Marquisate of Montferrat, and the Marquisate of Saluzzo. Later, as the French philologist Paul Meyer puts it, French predominated as the literary language in Piedmont, as in the Dauphiné and Savoy. For him, Piedmont is a ‘prolongation’ of France itself where, just like in Belgium and Switzerland, French progressed throughout all social strata. Tuscan made inroads later and more slowly, and until the late 19th century French played the role of the langue de la societé. The Edict of Rivoli (1561) established French and an unspecified volgare (vernacular) as the sole official languages for administrative acts in the Savoyard state. French was to be used in Savoy and the Aosta Valley, while the lingua volgare (literary Tuscan, i.e. Italian) was to be used in Piedmont and the County of Nice. Nonetheless, the Tuscan volgare was still too foreign; at the oral level Piedmontese was long preferred.  

Under French revolutionary occupation in 1798-99, it was partly on the basis of Piedmontese’s linguistic distinctiveness that Piedmontese Jacobins voted in favour of réunion with France. The ambivalent linguistic character of the Piedmontese and their Gallo-Roman ancestry were among the justifications for the incorporation to Jacobin France, and Francization was believed to be easily achievable. In 1814, a French-Piedmontese dictionary was published. The aptitude of Piedmontese speakers to learn French was taken for granted. However, while French was historically used by the Savoyard court and Tuscan was familiar to literate and urban bourgeoisie, Piedmontese was the only interclass language. It is not surprising that in 1783 Maurizio Pipino published a grammar of Piedmontese, together with a vocabulary. This work was dedicated to Marie Clotilde of France, consort of Charles Emmanuel IV King of Sardinia and ruler of the Savoyard lands, who wanted to learn Piedmontese as it was commonly spoken at the court in Turin alongside French.

Napoleon’s defeat and the restoration of the House of Savoy with its anti-Jacobin sentiments reinvigorated the pro-Italian party in Piedmont. The abandonment of French by Piedmont’s intelligentsia and their conversion to Italian was required to legitimize Turin’s ambitions towards the Po Valley and peninsular Italy. ‘Italianization by will’, and the formation of Italy as a nation-state (1861), abruptly put Piedmont’s distinct linguistic communities into a ‘glottophagic’ state. Hostility towards ‘alloglot’ groups soon materialized against the French speakers of the Aosta Valley and Piedmont. In 1861, Giovenale Vegezzi-Ruscalla, a member of parliament, published a petition in book form under the title of ‘The right and necessity to abolish French as the official language in some valleys in the Province of Turin’. The multilingualism of the Savoyard state, a de factoFranco-Italian state, could not resist Italian nation-building and de-Francization was an imperative. 

Republican Italy and linguistic rights

After Mussolini’s dictatorship (1922-1945), approaches towards linguistic diversity in Republican Italy became more accommodating. In 1948, the Italian Constituent Assembly promulgated a Special Statute for the Aosta Valley, which guaranteed equal status to both Italian and French. The Aosta Valley was easily awarded autonomy to thwart Gaullist France’s annexation plans, which were backed by a strong pro-French movement.

The same level of recognition did not occur for minority languages in Piedmont. Although art. 6 of the Italian Constitution provides for the ‘safeguarding’ of linguistic minorities with ‘appropriate measures’, its application only came with the adoption of Law no. 482 ‘Provisions to protect historical linguistic minorities’ in 1999. For the first time, this law stipulated the ‘protection’ of French, Franco-Provençal, and Occitan. According to its implementing regulation, Law 482/1999 offers a framework for extending cultural recognition to those linguistic minorities that are ‘historically rooted’ in a specific territory. The status of ‘historical linguistic minority’ is achieved when demanded for by 15% of the municipal population, as well as by a third of the municipality’s councillors. It is then that the provincial council is able to deliberate on the municipality’s demand to join the area where the minority language is spoken.

The current situation of French and Franco-Provençal in the Aosta Valley and Piedmont

The Aosta Valley has historically been a Francophone region. Franco-Provençal is also the native vernacular of the valdôtains, a Gallo-Romance language that bears at times similar, conservative, and innovative traits with respect to French and Provençal (an Occitanic dialect), and that is also spoken in parts of French-speaking Switzerland and in neighbouring east-central France. The Aosta Valley is characterized by a situation of ‘multiple dilalia[3]: Franco-Provençal is the ‘low’ intra-communitarian variety, while Italian and French play the role of the ‘high’ varieties used in a wider set of situations. Although French holds a symbolic-ideological status, the decadence of this language among the valdôtains must be highlighted: French is the native language of only 1% of the c. 125,000 inhabitants of the region. Nonetheless, over 83% of the respondents declared the ability to speak French either ‘well’ (21.19%), ‘pretty well’ (36.87%), or ‘a little’ (25.17%). Although spoken to different degrees by most of the population, French is neither the vehicular nor the native language of the Aosta Valley. Alongside Italian, it is used in administration, schooling, and politics. Franco-Provençal is instead the mother tongue of more than 15% of the population. Always behind Italian, which is now the dominant language, Franco-Provençal seems to be the most preferred vehicular language in the Aosta Valley: more than 67% of the valdôtains declared knowing the language; 35.1% and 10.17% of the respondents declared that they spoke it ‘well’ or ‘pretty well’, while 11.98% only spoke ‘a little’. Franco-Provençal is also spoken in Piedmont’s northwestern Alpine valleys, where under Law 482/1999 51 municipalities (population c. 90,000) are considered as belonging to the Franco-Provençal linguistic space. The vitality of Franco-Provençal in Piedmont is difficult to assess, and the number of speakers is believed to be around 15,000.[4] As shown by these figures, Franco-Provencal is now reportedly a severely endangered language.

Overall, the special status of the Aosta Valley has guaranteed the preservation of the French language, whose use has drastically decayed in Piedmont. In Piedmont, 36 municipalities belong to the French-speaking ‘historical linguistic minority’. Of them, 32 also indicated themselves as Occitan-speaking, while the other three municipalities belong to both the French and the Franco-Provençal linguistic minorities. Pinerolo is the only municipality in the Piedmontese linguistic domain that has demanded that French is recognized under Law 482/1999. Despite its distinctive Francophile orientation, the use of French and its vitality is hardly assessable in Piedmont. French was used as language of worship and teaching in the Waldensian Valleys by members of the Waldensian Evangelical Church. Alongside their vernacular language of Occitan, the Waldensians consistently employed French as their religious and community language from 1532 until the early 20th century, having joined the Reformation and established a long-lasting relationship with Calvinist Geneva. There are no official data on the current state of French among the Waldensians, who have partly shifted to the Italian language. Nowadays, their use of French remains limited.

Also, French was the administrative language of over fifty villages grouped in five communities called escartons. They formed the so-called République des Escartons, a transalpine cluster of mountainous Occitan-speaking communities straddling the Dauphiné and Piedmont that enjoyed an exceptional set of financial, administrative, and legal freedoms within France. Following the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, three out of the five escartons were ceded by France to Piedmont. Here, French continued to be the language of schooling, administration, and culture until the 1910s, when de-Francization was more intensely enacted.

There is no comprehensive data about the native use of French or about where it is used in the areas of Piedmont where it has been historically spoken. Overall, the resident population of the municipalities forming the French linguistic minority totals over 90,000 people.[5] To them, eight other municipalities (slightly over 3,000 inhabitants) that used to be part of the French escartons can be added, but, so far, Law 482/199 has been applied only to the Occitan language.  

To date, the position of French in the Aosta Valley, although institutionalized, seems rather weak and a process of Francophone re-acculturation may be needed; perhaps the full re-acquisition of French and the preservation of Franco-Provençal as literary and vehicular languages could revert the annihilating effects of Italianization. In Piedmont, historical Francophone and Francophile communities are not particularly vibrant – if not moribund – and suffer from Piedmont’s limited legislative autonomy on cultural and linguistic matters. 

The Occitanist movement in Piedmont

Just as in Southern France, the Òc language evolved in Piedmont’s alpine side. In the late 1960s, a highly politicized linguistic awakening of the Òc-speaking communities in Piedmont emerged under the influence of an Occitanist intellectual, François Fontan. He advocated for the liberation of what he considered the Occitan nation, stretching from the Aran Valley all the way through southern France until western Piedmont. Occitan nationalism soon grew in popularity due to the activity of the Occitan Autonomist Movement and other minor groups that melded ethnonationalist, Marxist, and anti-colonialist elements together. Since then, the Occitan movement in Piedmont has been strongly tied to the Occitanists of Southern France, and thereby to their main centre of cultural and linguistic promotion, the Toulouse-based Institut d’Estudis Occitans (IEO). Occitanists in Piedmont have adopted the Languedocien-inspired IEO-sponsored orthographic norm (called ‘normalized’), which tries to unify all Occitanic dialects into a single written koinè, and therefore serves the purposes of pan-Occitanism.[6] Among the – still unachieved –  objectives of early and modern-day Italian Occitanists is the aim of establishing an autonomous province or region for Piedmont’s Occitan Valleys.

Law 482/1999 has offered a framework for the linguistic recognition of the Occitan varieties in Piedmont. Still, due to the self-determining principle of this law, many non-Occitan-speaking municipalities have managed to be counted as part of the Occitan ‘historical linguistic minority’, so as to have access to the funding that linguistic minorities can receive under Law 482/1999. So far, 120 municipalities have claimed to be part of the Occitan linguistic minority. Of those, actual Occitan-speaking centres are believed to number more than 65, but fewer than 80. The distortive effect of Law 482/1999 does not allow for a proper assessment of the number of Occitan speakers, who are believed to either be as many as 180,000 or 200,000 – the population of the self-determined Occitan municipalities – or as few as 40-47,000 thousand, with some sources putting the figure at a mere 20,000.

The denial of Piedmontese and the ‘French option’

Notwithstanding its originality and its proximity to other Gallo-Romance languages, as well as its early ‘koineization’ (late 1700s), Piedmontese (the westernmost cluster of Gallo-Italic varieties) remains deprived of any formal recognition. Peripheral and distinct to Italian, it is therefore a ‘contested language’ with an unknown number of speakers ranging from 700,000 to 2 million people.

Since the 1970s, regional authorities have repeatedly tried to give some official status to Piedmontese. In 2009, Piedmont’s Regional Council unanimously approved a regional law that provided for the recognition of the Piedmontese language, and for its inclusion among the ‘historical linguistic minorities’ acknowledged under Law 482/1999. In 2010, the Constitutional Court (CC) found the references to the ‘Piedmontese language’, as well as the provisions for its protection and institutionalization, to be unconstitutional. For the CC, only the state legislator, and therefore not the subnational units (e.g., the Region of Piedmont), has the power to identify minority languages and to include them among those recognized under Law 482/1999. Consequently, Piedmontese is de facto denied minority status. Such a denial may explain the current detachment of Piedmontese from Italian as its ‘roof’ language, and the swing to the ‘French option’ to counter the risk of de-Gallicization.[7] Standardization processes have been reorientating Piedmontese towards French – taken as the new reference language – and thus pushing towards its Francization, or even, to a Frenchified Piedmontese.  

The recognition of Piedmontese has been also undermined by another phenomenon: Padanian nationalism. Championed by the Lega Nord, this brand of nationalism views Piedmont as a portion of the Padanian nation. As part of a broader exclusivist, ethnocentric, xenophobic, and anti-establishment ideology, it unduly incorporated Piedmontese into the alleged Padanian folkloristic heritage. 

Concluding remarks

De-Francization and de-Gallicization, together with the belated introduction of (flawed) legislation on linguistic minorities, have disfigured the linguistic and sociopolitical landscape of Piedmont and the Aosta Valley. A few major sociopolitical and linguistic processes are therefore identifiable in the region:

  • the eradication of the Francophone and Francophile legacy in Piedmont;
  • the loss of the valdôtains’ historical linguistic identity, which can be countered through re-Francization;
  • the hegemony of Occitanist neo-irredentism in the Òc-speaking region, which has been inflated due to the distortive effects of Law 482/1999;
  • the rise of Piedmontese purism and the rapprochement to French to reverse Italianization;
  • the folklorization of Piedmontese linguistic claims, hijacked by Padanian nationalism.

To a certain extent, Piedmont and the Aosta Valley can still be seen as Franco- and Gallo-Romance peripheries, linked to the Francosphere by intangible bonds and sizeable linguistic minorities. However, the lack of autonomous status in Piedmont and the late recognition of linguistic minorities have caused the chaotic shifting, reshaping, and forging of minority identities and peripheral narratives. From the nationalizing perspective of the Italian state, the acknowledgment of a broader Gallo-Romance space at its northwestern margins is indeed undesirable, which explains its denialist approach. Still, when not assimilated, the identities of linguistic minorities in Piedmont and the Aosta Valley are at once resilient and malleable; they are self-perpetuating and adjust to the sociopolitical reality in line with both primordialist and constructivist perspectives on human identities.


[1] In Italian: Dichiarazione dei rappresentati delle popolazioni alpine (or Dichiarazione di Chivasso).

[2] The ‘amphibious’ character of Piedmont and Turin is expressly highlighted by Vittorio Alfieri, a native of Piedmont, and one of the most prominent 18th century authors in Italian. He long struggled to master Italian, having French as his primary language.

[3] Multiple dilalia describes the coexistence of two “high” official languages (Italian and French), de jure but not de facto equal (as Italian has eroded the spaces of French), and of other “low” linguistic repertoires (Franco-Provençal, Piedmontese and Walser German).  

[4] All the figures reported here are the results of a linguistic survey conducted in 2001 by the Fondation Émile Chanoux with a sample of 7,500 citizens, representative of the population of the Aosta Valley. 

[5] This figure is surely inflated by Pinerolo’s population (c. 35,500). Pinerolo, although having been incorporated into France several times throughout its history, remains a Piedmontese-speaking centre.

[6] The International Commission for the Linguistic Normalization of Alpine Occitan has further elaborated and refined the IEO’s ‘normalized’ or ‘classical’ norm, in order to make it more adaptable to the dialectal varieties of Piedmont’s Occitan valleys. 

[7] De-Gallicization refers to the loss of Gallo-Romance features at large.

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