Plan for French universities to teach in English sparks a war of words

PUBLISHED : Monday, 13 May, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 13 May, 2013, 5:22am


Jacques Chirac once stormed out of an EU summit because a French business leader was speaking it, Nicolas Sarkozy lamented his lack of it and Francois Hollande makes small talk in it but is conscious of his accent.

The global spread of the English language has long been a sore point in Paris politics.

Now a new battleground has appeared in the linguistic war.

The Socialist government wants to allow English to be used as a teaching language in French universities, sparking a rift in academia. Until now, teaching and lecturing in a foreign language at French universities has been banned by law, except in the case of language courses or visiting professors.

The 1994 law was intended to preserve the French language.

But in reality, several French universities, including some of the most prestigious, have disregarded the legislation and have been steadily using English in lectures and seminars.

The government has now decided the ban should be relaxed. In a new higher education law, ministers plan to allow French universities to use foreign languages for teaching, ensuring professors can lecture in English rather than French if they are teaching a European programme or in partnership with a foreign institution.

But the Academie Francaise, guardian of the French language, appealed to French MPs to oppose the plan, claiming the new law "favours a marginalisation of the French language".

Academics opposed to the plan have launched a petition, with Claude Hagege, a professor at the College de France, warning in the newspaper Le Monde of "an act of sabotage" of the French language.

This week, a collective of senior French academics, including two Nobel prizewinners, hit back in an open-letter to Le Monde, saying it made sense to allow foreign language teaching in French faculties and would make its universities more attractive abroad.

The group said hundreds of masters courses in France already featured teaching in English, criticising opponents as "totally out of step" with reality.

They said English was used in science and by scientific publications and postgraduate students needed to be able to master it.

The government has refused to back down, arguing that French universities need to win foreign students and compete internationally. France has slipped to fifth place, behind the US, UK, Australia and Germany for attracting foreign students.

Genevieve Fioraso, the minister for higher education, insisted on the need to make French universities more attractive.

But she has written to the Academie Francaise in an attempt to calm the storm, stressing that only 1 per cent of courses would be affected and foreign students would still have to learn French.