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QUEBEC BUSINESSMAN FACES FINE OVER SMALL FRENCH LETTERS ON SIGN

In Quebec, even the dead must pass by French signs before reaping their reward, according to the province's French-language police who threatened to fine a gravestone maker for posting a sign advertising monuments in Hebrew letters that were slightly taller than those using the French word for monuments.

Mendy Berson, owner of L. Berson & Sons, a 75-year-old Montreal monument maker, told a news conference the government agency in charge of ensuring the primacy of the French language in Quebec sent him "a love letter" warning him to change the lettering on his 50-year-old sign or face fines of up to $1,000.

"It makes me feel like a third-class citizen," Berson said of the warning letter.

Quebec's Office of the French Language, known as the "language police" by its detractors, is charged with ensuring that all public signs follow the intricacies of French dominance.

Under the provincial law, signs with both French and any other language must be written with the French lettering twice as large as that for the other language, or if a sign is solely in a language other than French, there must be two French signs of equal size bearing the same message, explained Howard Galganov, a Montreal-based English rights crusader.

The challenge against Berson's sign marked the second time the language office moved against the city's small Jewish community. In 1996, a crackdown by the language inspectors temporarily forced retailers to remove American-made, for-Passover Kosher foods from their shelves because the labels were written in English and Hebrew but not French.

The Quebec government eventually exempted the foods from their regulations.

When the warning letter first arrived in Berson's office Dec. 16, an official for the language inspectors' office said businesses are not entitled to avoid the law simply because the majority of its clientele come from one ethnic group.

But by the following day, protests organized by Galganov forced the government to back down.

Louise Beaudoin, the minister responsible for upholding the French language laws, called her own press conference to announce the language inspectors showed "an error in judgment" that should be "stopped immediately."

Recently, Galganov has taken a strong and public stand against efforts to "cleanse" Quebec of English signs. He has led protests against Montreal-area stores including Toys R Us and Office Depot whose customers are largely English speaking but whose signs are all in French.

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