The question is provoked by a title in Le Monde today: "Human Rights Watch dénonce l’offensive de la Chine contre les droits humains".

One of the subjects discussed in the comments to this article is centered on whether one should translate "human rights" as "droits de l'homme" or "droits humains". The former is a standard formula, however some claim that the two are equivalent or even that "droits de l'homme" is an old term, which is also sexist and even designed to spite the English.

My own take is: "droits de l'homme" is a genitive construction, these are rights that man has, whereas "droits humains" is a noun characterized by adjective, something like "human-ish rights". So the meaning is not the same... However I might be channeling my native Russian speaker, for whom "права человека" and "человеческие права" are clearly different things.

*The article appeared with this title on social networks, however it now says "droits de l'homme" on the Le Monde web site.

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    I don't perceive any difference between the adjectival and the genitive constructions in my native language of English or in French. I also think that in droits de l'homme, l'homme refers to all people. It is sexist in a sense (the male-specific term can also be used to refer to everyone, while the female-specific term cannot) but it does not exclude women. In the wake of the French revolution the term rights of man was widely used in English (see e.g. Thomas Paine). – JD2000 Jan 15 '20 at 11:39
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    @JD2000 note that when we french use "droits de l'Homme", we generally use a capital H. And yes it then refers to all people. However, there are many people willing to remove any "sexist" word from common language so it does not surprise me anymore to see "droits de l'Homme" becoming "droits humains"... – Rafalon Jan 16 '20 at 11:44
  • Not sure about "generally" - e.g. Déclaration des droits de l'homme et du citoyen (1789), Déclaration universelle des droits de l'homme (1948), Convention européenne de sauvegarde des droits de l'homme (1950), Conseil des droits de l'homme des Nations unies (2006). Even with the lower-case h it is clear that it includes women. It is true that most of these examples are quite dated but the ONU website still uses h (and so does Wikipedia, for what that's worth). – JD2000 Jan 16 '20 at 12:52
  • I think the H is an attempt to make the term more gender neutral, but if that is a concern I'd say it's neater just to switch to droits humains, which seems to be what is happening anyway, e.g. Ligue des droits de l'homme > Ligue des droits humains. – JD2000 Jan 16 '20 at 12:53

You guessed right, "droits humains" is the more gender-neutral and inclusive alternative to the more historical "droits de l'homme".

Both terms are still used, but I think in this article the choice was somewhat "forced"(*) by the name of the activist group, "Human Rights Watch". It would have been weird to mention "les droits de l'homme" after calling them human rights in English.

(*) Maybe Le Monde uses "droits humain" all the time, maybe they chose that term for other reasons, I don't know.

I don't know what you meant by "designed to spite the English" though.

  • "To spite the English" - I mean the French aversion to borrowing from English, which often expresses itself in intentionally using non-English equivalents of well-known terms, such as courrier électronique for email or dièze for hashtag. – Vadim Jan 15 '20 at 10:15
  • @Vadim I think you're confusing different things: droits de l'homme predates the "intrusion" of English in French by far (it dates back to the French Revolution at least); You said "to spite the English", did you mean "English" or "the English language"? Initiatives to "protect" French from English words are made to, well, protect French, not to make English people angry or anything. Also, dièse is a musical term, it existed way before the # sign was popularized by computer use (and btw, a hashtag is a # used with a word. The symbol alone is just called a hash). – Teleporting Goat Jan 15 '20 at 10:26
  • You are right, my formulation was awkward: it is done not to "spite" the English, but to "protect" the French language. A possible argument thus goes like this: droits de l'homme is a really old term, which is semantically equivalent to droits humains; thus using the former underscores Frenchness, while using the latter is more in lien with modernity. As for dièze - I advocate using this term in music and using term hashtag when talking about Twitter etc. – Vadim Jan 15 '20 at 10:42
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    @Vadim I don't think there's any relation between old terms and "Frenchness". Using modern words isn't necessarily less French. And I agree with you, most French people use the word "hashtag" when referring to twitter and instagram hashtags. The Académie française does a lot of recommendations to replace English words when they start to be used in French. Sometime it works and they're adopted (like logiciel or liseuse), sometimes they're laughable and completely ignored (like planche à roue for skateboard), sometimes it's a little bit of both, it's an interesting subject. – Teleporting Goat Jan 15 '20 at 10:48
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    Also, note that it's very different in France and in Québec, because the context is very different. In Québec, every word has to have an official translation, because French is an official in Canada. Anything that can be translated must be (movie titles for example). It's also a way to "resist" and affirm French-speaking culture in Canada. On the other hand, moth Québécois are bilingual and they use a lot of English words in colloquial language. – Teleporting Goat Jan 15 '20 at 10:52

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