Quebec’s language police target furniture store sign that owner insists is proper French

Steve Mertl
·National Affairs Contributor

Quebec's effort to protect the French language often causes frictions with non-francophones but here's a case of a French-speaking merchant defying the province's language police.

Elie Bendavid, an immigrant from Morocco, says the Office québécois de la langue française is unfairly targeting his family-run Montreal furniture store over its sign: Kif-Kif Import.

The offending word apparently is "import," which the agency says is not correct French. But Bendavid, who also teaches at the French-language Université du Québec à Montréal, says a linguist told him it's a legitimate French word.

"I believe the Office didn't do its homework," Bendavid, whose mother tongue is French, told the Globe and Mail.

But the province's language monitor disagrees. "Import-export" is OK but when "import" alone is used, it should be "importation." It's given Bendavid until Thursday to change the sign or face penalties between $1,500 and $20,000.

But Bendavid is ignoring the deadline. He said he supports Bill 101, the law that gives French precedence in the province, "but the way they're applying it makes me ill at ease. I feel I have the duty to speak out."

Critics point out that while small businesses are singled out (Kif-Kif apparently got on the Office's radar after someone complained anonymously), large ones are left alone. Not far from Kif-Kif there's a Subway sandwich shop and a Canada Trust branch, the Globe noted.

Multinational chains such as Costco, Winners, Best Buy, Banana Republic and Home Depot retain their English-language signage.

"They're harassing little guys who are trying to pay their taxes and earn a living, while multinationals aren't being hit," said TV host Jean-Luc Mongrain, who featured Bendavid's case on his afternoon talk show on TVA. "Do you really think that applying the French-language charter this way helps our cause?"

For its part, the Office says it has launched a campaign urging large companies, whose names are protected by trademark, to add a descriptive term in French. It says it is relying on persuasion and wants to avoid penalties.

Bendavid said he wants to settle the dispute without going to court.

"It's a question of justice."

The comment thread on the Globe story was overwhelmingly sympathetic.

"I am a French Canadian from Quebec City," said one. "One day I am afraid I will have to leave Quebec...for good. Being force fed French by the language police is one of the reasons my roots have been severed ... This society went from blindly following the abusive rules of the Catholic Church to a new religion fad: language fanatism. Embarrassing."