When it comes to French business, the accent is on English
PARIS — You still aren't likely to get a Parisian waiter's respect if your accent isn't complètement parfait. But even a gauche monolingual American will feel right at home these days in a French boardroom.
In a recent survey of 26 of France's largest companies, 16 gave English as their official working language - including Renault, Danone, and Aventis. Of these, nine have dropped French altogether. Seven put English and French on equal footing.
To some here, the trend is a slap in the face. After all, this is a country known for its linguistic pride, and one whose government outlaws advertising in English, and mandates a 40 percent quota of French songs on the radio.
But even the staunchest Gaullists now recognize the need to equip citizens with the tools to compete in a globalized economy.
According to the study by the French branch of Educational Testing Services, a private, nonprofit educational-testing organization, English is increasingly the "lingua franca" of French business.
The report says not being able to speak English today is the equivalent of not knowing how to read or write 50 years ago.
"If you want to do business outside France, you have to speak English," says Eric DeLisy, whose company distributes industrial and chemical products across Europe. Mr. DeLisy says his 16 employees don't necessarily have to speak it well, but they must be able to read and write at a basic level in order to correspond with clients.
"Now just to hire a receptionist, even they've got to speak English and that makes them more expensive to hire," he says.
On a recent afternoon, DeLisy was taking a break on the sprawling campus of Hautes Études de Commerce (HEC), one of France's top business schools, where he is working on an executive MBA. His class is composed of other executives like himself, from all walks of French business. And most speak three languages.
At schools like HEC, the demand for English-speaking managers is having a profound effect.
"Ten years ago having an all-French program and teaching in French was a matter of principle, an offensive for promoting the French language," says Jean-Marc de Leersnyder, professor and associate dean of HEC's executive MBA program. "But that's a thing of the past. Even our French students now expect classes in English."
And because HEC competes with schools in Britain and the US to lure international students, many of its programs are now taught entirely in English.
"We have to convince Chinese and other Asian applicants that they can come to study in France and that speaking French is not an issue," says Bernard Ramanantsoa, dean of HEC.
The tilt toward English is not manifested just in MBA programs. A recent government proposal to overhaul the national education system recommended that mandatory English classes begin as early as first grade, with a second foreign language to follow later.
Of course, not all French institutions are embracing the trend. Last year, labor unions at General Electric Medical Systems in France challenged in court the company's English-only manuals. They won under a French law that mandates all foreign terms used in the workplace be translated into French.
In Paris, on the left bank of the Seine sits the gold-domed Académie française, the venerable institution founded in 1635 to preserve the purity of the French language. The Académie publishes a dictionary of the French language and works with "terminology commissions" in each government ministry to come up with a French equivalent for every new Anglo-Saxon term.
Académie spokesman Laurent Personne says the institution's work today is not so much about fighting English as guarding against the "impoverishment" of the French language.
"In a globalized world we have to work to maintain the richness of different languages and cultures," he says.
"We're not here to rename golf terms," he says. Mr. Personne points to recent successes, such as the words ordinateur and courriel, which replaced the English words for "computer" and "e-mail," and are now a part of mainstream French vocabulary. "The Germans are still saying kohmputer," he notes.
Back at the HEC campus, MBA candidate André Schwab is heading to class. Mr. Schwab is CEO of the French post office, known as La Poste. While he reckons French mailmen won't have to speak English any time soon, he says English is crucial to the consulting and international divisions of La Poste. "In the past we were unable to send consulting delegations abroad because we didn't have enough people who spoke English," he laments.
But Schwab says he doesn't see anything wrong with protecting a language. "It's important for people to speak a full language, otherwise it creates two sets of citizens - those who are skilled enough to understand the new phrases and those who are not."
Personally, Scwhab says he dislikes English words ending in "ing" that are now so prevalent in the French language, such as "shampooing" and "marketing."
"They don't lend well to the French ear," he says. But the all-time worst is "sourcing," he says. Schwab makes a point of using the official French replacement, appartition.
"My employees don't know what I'm talking about when I say it," he laughs. "But if you don't try, it will never catch on."