When two French ministers last month launched a new program to respond to the challenges of population aging, they gave it an English name: “Silver Economy.” But that didn’t strike a chord with their boss.
The day after, Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault issued a memo reminding all members of the cabinet of President François Hollande that French has been the language in use by administration and justice officials here since 1539.
"I invite you to ensure respect of the rules overseeing the use of our language in society because, whatever the area it is about – consumption, education, business, science, culture, broadcasting – our social fabric is weakened if these rules are not strictly followed,” Mr. Ayrault wrote.
But now the government is proposing a bill that would allow some classes to be taught in a foreign language, chiefly English, at public universities – reigniting the country's frequent, ongoing debate about the proper use of its constitutionally enshrined native tongue, as critics say the new measure would undermine the French language's place as a defining element of France's national identity and cultural stature.
The French government has hailed the measure as a way to attract more foreign students and scholars to France and points that hundreds of college programs are already being taught in English.
Supporters – including two Nobel Prize winners – of the measure say it would not only make France more attractive for talented students and scholars who don’t speak French, but also help French students prepare to work in an English-speaking environment.
“It is a good thing that we convey the message to students around the world that they can come study in France and that they won’t have to deal with a language barrier [in class] on top of that,” says Antoine Petit, the associate general director of Inria, a research institute for computer science and applied mathematics.
Yet the bill, which went to Parliament today, has met strong opposition from both politicians across the political spectrum and prominent scholars.
Christian Lequesne, the director of the Paris-based Center for International Studies and Research, says the French far-left and the conservative right see the bill as a vehicle for American and British influence in France.
“Politicians can’t help seeing a domination of the Anglo-Saxon world [through this bill],” says Mr. Lequesne, who supports the measure.
Far-right leader Marine Le Pen of the National Front in a May 17 news release demanded that Mr. Hollande withdraw the bill in the name of “national interest.”
“France will not be stronger by giving up its assets and it national genius, by pouring itself in the mold of an Anglo-Saxon-style globalization,” Ms. Le Pen said in the news release. “The French language, present on the five continents, is obviously among the strengths of our country.”
The French Academy, an institution established in 1635 to oversee the use of French, has also recommended that the portion of the bill that would allow classes to be taught in foreign languages in college be withdrawn.
“The French Academy, faithful to its vocation of guardian of the language and its evolution, wishes to draw attention on the dangers of a measure that seems to be of technical nature, when in reality it favors the marginalization of our language,” read part of a statement issued on March 22.
Opposition to the bill even comes from within the ranks of the Socialist Party in power.
Pouria Amirshahi, a Socialist lawmaker in the lower chamber of Parliament, says there is no point for French universities in trying to attract foreign students from India and other developing countries who can’t speak any French or don’t intend to learn it.
“There are hundreds of thousands of Indians who can speak French or who are willing to speak French,” Mr. Amirshahi says. “So the one that only speaks English, he doesn’t come here.... And if he comes, he has to learn” French.
Amirshahi, who speaks English and other languages, says the government should improve how French schools teach foreign languages rather than require college students to take classes taught in English.
About 220 million people speak French across the world, with Europe and sub-Saharan Africa being the two areas with the highest concentration of French speakers, according to the International Organization of La Francophonie.
But Lequesne of the Center for International Studies and Research says that contrary to politicians opposing the bill, young French scholars usually feel comfortable speaking and writing in English.
Mr. Petit says he thinks this controversy also is the expression of France’s passion for arguments.
“We are really good in France at ending up arguing, fighting, debating about tiny issues,” he says. “And I think we love it.”