France’s lower house will start debating a proposal Wednesday to introduce more courses in English at universities, amid a storm of controversy in a nation fiercely protective of its identity.
The measure, which would also introduce lessons in other languages as part of a wider bill on higher education reform, aims to increase the number of foreign students at universities from 12 percent of the total to 15 percent by 2020.
Critics say it will harm decades-long, zealous efforts to protect the French language, while supporters argue it will better young locals’ grasp of English as France slides into recession and many look to work abroad.
“Teaching in English — Let’s do it” read a front-page headline in English in France’s leading left-wing daily Liberation on Tuesday, which argued the French must stop acting as “the last representatives of an under-siege Gaulish village.”
Even foreign newspapers have waded into the debate, with a slight dash of irony.
“If Anglais est allowé dans les rooms de classe, Français will becomez une “dead language”, pensent les grandes fromages. Sacré bleu!” the Daily Telegraph said in an editorial Wednesday.
Genevieve Fioraso, the higher education minister, has lashed out at the “astounding hypocrisy” of the debate, pointing out that English and other languages are already used widely in France’s elite “grandes ecoles”.
She said that the so-called 1994 “Toubon Law” — which stipulates that the language of education in France must be French, bar some exceptions — had routinely been flouted in the “grandes ecoles” without any objections raised.
But for several leading unions in the education sector, which have threatened a strike on Wednesday, the proposal is unacceptable.
“It is cultural heritage which is at stake,” Claudine Kahane, a senior official of Snesup-FSU, one of the main unions in the sector, said earlier this month.
The influential Academie Francaise, set up in 1635 and the official authority on the language, has also joined the chorus of disapproval.
And journalist Bernard Pivot, a respected figure in French cultural circles, has argued that the measure could sound the death knell for what locals fondly call “the language of Moliere”.
“If we allow English to be introduced into our universities and for teaching science and the modern world, French will be vandalised and become poorer,” he said.
“It will turn into a commonplace language, or worse, a dead language.”
France has for decades zealously propagated the use of French both at home and abroad through cultural institutions and the French-speaking Francophonie bloc of nations.
But despite this, the use of English has made rapid inroads in France.
Many youths now respond to telephone calls with an energetic “Yes?” in place of the traditional “allo” or “oui”.
English is seen more and more in graffiti in Paris and “franglais” — the use of English words when speaking French — is also gaining ground.
[Photo: (L-R) France's Minister for Equality of Territories and Housing Cecile Duflot, Junior Minister for Social Economy Benoit Hamon, Justice Minister Christiane Taubira, Junior Minister in Charge of Relations with the Parliament Alain Vidalies and Minister for Higher Education Geneviève Fioraso leave the Elysee presidential Palace in Paris at the end of the weekly cabinet meeting on May 22, 2013.]