(Bloomberg) -- Quebec Premier Francois Legault, concerned about the decline of the French language in the Canadian province, has set a new goal for immigrants: They should all speak French.
Legault’s nationalist Coalition Avenir Quebec party was re-elected with a huge majority in October, partly on a platform of protecting French as the dominant language in the province of 8.7 million people. His speech to the legislature Wednesday laid out his priorities for his second term, including a plan to bar almost all economic immigrants who don’t speak French by 2026.
“The objective is to stop the decline of French, in particular in Montreal, and to reverse the trend,” Legault said. “The French language, it must be an imperative duty.”
The policy would apply only to those seeking permanent residency on economic grounds -- not to refugees or people entering Quebec on temporary work visas. Legault said about 50% to 60% of economic immigrants selected by previous governments talked French.
The percentage of Quebeckers declaring French as their first spoken language declined 1.5 percentage points to 82.2% between 2016 and 2021, according to data from Statistics Canada. Within the province, 80% of employees now mainly use French at work, while 14% mainly use English and 5% use both equally.
But in Montreal, the province’s largest city, French at work drops to 70%.
Pierre Fitzgibbon, Quebec’s economy minister, told reporters there should be exceptions, such as workers in the electric-vehicle battery sector. Foreign firms from South Korea and Germany have plans to build plants in the province. “It would be fun to have 100%,” he said. “But you have to be realistic, and balance that with needs.”
The Conseil du Patronat du Quebec, a lobby group that represents some of the province’s biggest companies, said the government should not penalize allophones -- people whose first language is neither French nor English -- especially in sectors such as information technology and video game programming, where talent is harder to find.
“We are sensitive to the situation of French in Quebec, but we must not rule out good candidates for immigration on this sole criterion,” said Karl Blackburn, the group’s president.
Legault’s government has been criticized by the business community for adopting a controversial law, known as Bill 96, aimed at protecting the French language. Under it, all companies providing goods and services in Quebec must now serve their clients in French. Another measure allows a provincial agency, the Office Quebecois de la Langue Francaise, to verify the language used in a company’s internal and external communications when investigating a complaint.
Executives at more than 150 companies have signed a letter to Legault warning the premier the law “is threatening to do enormous damage to the province’s economy” because it creates an unpredictable business environment.
(Updates with comments from the Conseil du Patronat du Quebec)
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