Crackdown in Quebec: ‘Le Gap’ Won’t Do

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Published: November 22, 2012

GATINEAU, Quebec — The southern gentleman with the distinctive tie who looms above the entrance to a fast-food restaurant here is immediately recognizable to any American. The outlet’s name, PFK, however, might be a bit of a puzzle. And not far away on Boulevard Maloney, a busy street lined with shopping malls, sits another familiar sight: a red and white big-box store filled with binders, photocopier paper and desks. But the name, Bureau en Gros, might not ring a bell.

Mathieu Belanger for The New York Times

The office supply chain Staples uses another name in Quebec. Stricter rules in the province on signs for companies with non-French names have led to a lawsuit.

When it comes to American companies, KFC and Staples are exceptions in Quebec in that they have translated their names into French (PFK representing Poulet Frit Kentucky and Bureau en Gros meaning Office Wholesale). A large majority of signs along Boulevard Maloney could be just as at home in, well, Kentucky: they include Costco Wholesale, Walmart, Toys “R” Us, Best Buy, Pizza Hut and Linen Chest. A Comfort Inn sits nearby to receive overwhelmed shoppers.

Quebec’s stringent language laws, first passed in 1977, have long meant that regardless of the name out front, all large retailers serve customers in French and post signs that are predominately, or entirely, in French along their aisles. Now, after decades of permitting a plethora of English-language trade names on signs, the government agency responsible for enforcing language laws has changed its mind. Its efforts, accompanied by threats of legal action and fines, to add French phrases and slogans to those trade names prompted six major American retailers to take the province to court last month.

“How can you organize your business when you’ve had a law that’s been applied a certain way for 35 years change without any discussion?” said Nathalie St.-Pierre, the vice president for Quebec at the Retail Council of Canada, who spoke on Thursday on behalf of all the plaintiffs. “It’s a bit like you take the tax laws and then suddenly change the way they are applied. People would feel it was very unfair.”

The plaintiffs’ suit asked the Quebec Superior Court to assess the legality of the policy change by Quebec’s office of the French language. The companies are all American-owned and include the Canadian subsidiaries of Wal-Mart, Best Buy (which operates under its own name in Canada and which owns a separate electronics chain here called Future Shop, even in Quebec), Guess, Costco Wholesale and the Gap, which listed its Old Navy operation as a separate plaintiff.

But while American companies may be leading the resistance, many Canadian retailers are also affected by the change. Boulevard Maloney has an enormous Canadian Tire store, and while it stocks “pneus” on its shelves in Quebec, the chain still maintains its full English name on its signs along the road.

Martin Bergeron, a spokesman for the language agency, acknowledged on Thursday that it had until now “tolerated” signs containing nothing but trademarked names in languages other than French. But he said that a growing influx of retailers from the United States and elsewhere in the world into Quebec caused the agency to focus its attention on the issue about 18 months ago. Mr. Martin said that complaints to the office about signs had been steadily increasing and represented 46 percent of the 4,000 it received last year.

“This is not against any language,” Mr. Bergeron said. “English, Italian or Chinese, it’s all the same.” He added that the agency will even investigate signs containing names that are not related to any known language.