According to Law 482/99, the French-speaking community of Piedmont is settled in 19 municipalities of the Province of Turin. Their territory includes the Pellice, Chisone and Germanasca Valleys and the municipalities of Susa and Oulx.
For centuries, even after the unification of Italy, French was the language most known and used in the "Waldensian Valleys" and to a lesser extent in the Upper Susa Valley. There are many reasons for this, which can mainly be found in history. In fact, the Upper Susa and Chisone valleys were transferred from France to Dauphine in 1349 and took French as their official language and culture.
French was also the language spoken by the Waldensians, thus becoming not only the primary code, but also the language of culture linked to the liturgy. The Waldensian doctrine of the Piedmont valleys, in fact, revolved around the religious centre of Geneva, whence came the books and teachers to teach in the Waldensian schools and "ministers" and preachers able to comment the Bible. This explains why French remained the cultural language in these valleys, able to integrate itself with the local culture, a place where the "popular” language was traditionally a kind of Provencal Alpine language. For example, it is suffice to say that the Vicarage of Oulx during the twelfth century had been separated from the diocese of Turin, and after a brief period of independence, was annexed to the French diocese of Embrun. The parishes of the Chisone valleys remained under the jurisdiction of the bishops of Embrun until 1748, when the Pinerolo Church became a bishopric.
In 1713, with the Treaty of Utrecht, the valleys belonging to the Dauphine were transferred to the Savoy; however, this did not change anything regarding the language: the use of French was tolerated, but not officially allowed. It should be pointed out that an article of the Treaty of Utrecht established which franchises and local traditions had to be respected. Only with Carlo Emanuele II and the Royal Patentes of 1737 were the provisions of the Dauphine Statute confirmed in regard to the Valleys of Oulx, Chisone and Cesana.
With the Age of Enlightenment French became the language used by all the elite throughout Europe, including scholars, courts, famous and rich people.
Therefore, it can be affirmed that French was a language of prestige in the Piedmont valleys, for both the upper classes and for peasants in the mountain valleys.
In 1840, new rules enacted by Carlo Alberto brought reforms to the Piedmont education system and Italian was made compulsory in Latin secondary schools, indicating the change of power between the French and Italian, which started to become the official language of the new kingdom.
In 1848, the “Albertino” statute stipulated that Italian was the official language of the Chambers, but French could be used by members belonging to countries where this language was in use. These attentions were mainly due to the consideration given to the Savoy: when it was surrendered to the French in 1860, the number of French-speakers decreased dramatically, even though French was still used in the Waldensian schools of Piedmont; and all the publications, both popular and cultural, were written in French.
This situation gradually changed from the first decade of the 1900s, when, with the passing of the education system to the state, it became compulsory to use Italian. A severe blow to French, however, came from fascism, which imposed the Italian language even in places of worship and publications, and the Italianisation of historical names of countries and surnames of people.
At the beginning of the 1980s, thanks to the initiative of some teachers, French once again began to be taught in the primary schools of the Waldensian valleys.
French is present in Pinerolo for several political, historical, economic and religious reasons. The geographical location of the border with France and the strategic and logistical importance of the alpine mountain pass as a direct communication between the valleys have, over the decades, fostered a number of important conditions that have contributed to the presence of French-speakers in the Pinerolo valleys: trade, seasonal emigration, intermarriage, etc. The Upper Chisone valley first belonged to the Dauphine and then to France until 1713, the year of the Treaty of Utrecht. For nearly four centuries, from the 14th to the 18th centuries, this mountainous region experienced a unique political and administrative development: the Republic of Escartons.
Moreover, the Waldensian presence in some territories had a key role in the spread of the French language. During the sixteenth century, with adhesion to the Franco-Swiss Protestant Reform, relations with French-speaking protestant communities developed and intensified: the translation of the Bible into French is the main proof of this. Following the plague of 1630, many French-speaking ministers arrived in the valleys from Geneva and this contributed even further to spreading the idiom beyond the Alps: French was the official language of the Waldensian Protestants from the late 17th century to the late 19th century.
Classroom instruction in Waldensian schools was conducted in French and it was also the language of culture: all publications were in French. Of particular importance was the musical component: the transmission from generation to generation of the songs of the valley helped to keep alive the use of French. The songs are passed down in oral form, but also written into “cahier des chansons.” Most of the songs included in the period between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries are in French, and this is testimony of the belonging to a European French-speaking area, where cultural and traditional elements have been shared for centuries, elaborated and handed down, even through song.