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 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.
When it comes to U.S. 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, Wal-Mart, Toys “R” Us, Best Buy, Pizza Hut and Linen Chest. A Comfort Inn sits nearby to receive overwhelmed shoppers.
Quebec’s stringent language laws, 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 predominantly, or entirely, in French along their aisles.
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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 U.S. 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 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 U.S.-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 U.S. 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 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 U.S. and elsewhere into Quebec caused the agency to focus its attention on the issue about 18 months ago.
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,” Bergeron said. “English, Italian or Chinese, it’s all the same.”
Provincial law clearly permits the use of trademarks, from any language, on signs unless a company has specifically registered a French trade name. So even now, Best Buy does not have to become Meilleur Achat.
The language agency, however, is demanding that companies with non-French trade names add to their signs a slogan or description in French of what they sell.
On a special website with an address that can be translated as “respect for the law,” the language office offered some hypothetical tips using a fictitious store named Daily Living.
Although it cannot require it, the office suggested that the store’s owners could adopt the name Les Beaux Jours (The Beautiful Days).
Otherwise, it said, the imaginary store could comply by adding a much larger French name above its English name, tacking on the French word for furniture or introducing a French-language slogan meaning “Furniture, bedding and decoration.”
In their court filing, the retailers disagreed with the language office’s interpretation of the law and contended that signs displaying non-French trademarks still complied. The arcane legal argument hinged on questions related to the relationship between corporate names and trade names.
St.-Pierre said that aside from cost, retailers wanted to maintain consistency in all their brand materials, including signs, globally.
She also wondered aloud exactly what adding on the word “magasin” (store) to Wal-Mart’s name would bring to consumers or French culture in Quebec.
When asked that question, Bergeron replied: “Our role here is to make sure the law is applied.”