Proposal to allow English in French universities irks some

France's government wants to allow English to be used more in French universities. This would attract more foreign students and give French students more opportunities overseas. Purists, however, see the move as another assault on the French language.

The French government is trying to slay a sacred cow. The Ministry for Higher Education plans to remove some of the legal protection of the French language.

Under the so-called “Toubon Law” of 1994 , all academic subjects -- other than foreign languages -- must be taught in French; and public bodies are obliged to coin pure French alternatives to replace English imports like “le weekend “ and “le marketing.”

But the government wants to modify the law.

“The Minister is just trying to loosen the restrictions on the teaching of university classes in English,” says Douglas Yates of the American University in Paris. "This is because the business schools need to teach in English, and scientists need to deal with the scientific community in English.”

By lifting the ban on English as a medium of instruction, the government hopes to attract many more foreign students to French universities. The goal is to raise the level from 12 percent to 15 percent by 2020.

The left-leaning daily newspaper Liberation showed its support for the policy by printing its front page entirely in English with the headline: “Let’s Do It.” Editor-in-Chief Fabrice Rousselot says relaxing the ban on teaching in English would be good for France -- and the French language.

“If we teach in English, then we will have more foreigners coming here,” he said. "They will absorb French culture and language and take that back home with them when they leave.”

Rousselot argues that teaching in the world’s most popular foreign language will also help French students. It will equip them to go out and sell French products and services anywhere abroad.

“Our French youth is going to be able to go around the world instead of being afraid of the world," he said. “They’ll be able to conquer the world!”

But the plan to lower the protection of the French language is raising national hackles.

“Our public policy is to broaden French influence and the French language,” says conservative lawmaker Jacques Myard. “We should not spend French taxpayers’ money promoting American and British interests.”

Myard says focusing on English as the main international language is, anyway, a strategic error. “I’m sorry to say that English is declining. As is the United States of America. I’m sorry to say.”

But most opponents of the new measure are more worried about the perceived threat to the French language. George Gastaud is president of a French language defense group called Courriel. The name means “email" in French and was invented to replace the widely used Franglais term “le mail.” Gastaud deplores the plan to ease the restrictions on English teaching.

“I’m resisting the replacement of our own language by another,” he says. “What is France, without French? “

But even he -- the purist -- exemplifies the relentless encroachment of  English. In our interview in French, he complained about “le French bashing” and spoke of “le business lobby."

Now that’s what I call Franglais.

About the author

Stephen Beard is the European bureau chief and provides daily coverage of Europe’s business and economic developments for the entire Marketplace portfolio.

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