French to debate whether to teach university courses in English

French minister for higher education and research, Geneviève Fioraso presented the  draft law including the proposal two months ago. Photograph: Jean-Sebastien Evrard/AFP/Getty Images

French minister for higher education and research, Geneviève Fioraso presented the draft law including the proposal two months ago. Photograph: Jean-Sebastien Evrard/AFP/Getty Images


The French National Assembly will begin debating today whether the government should authorise the teaching of university courses in English, to attract foreign students from emerging powers like Brazil, India and China.

When minister for higher education and research Geneviève Fioraso presented a draft law including the proposal two months ago, she had no idea there would be such a backlash.

Although the socialist government supports the measure, some 40 socialist parliamentary deputies vehemently oppose it. Pouria Amirshahi, a deputy for French people living abroad, says it constitutes “a slap in the face of the French language” and is the result of “an inferiority complex”.

Linguistic threat
The Académie Francaise, guardian of the French language since 1635, denounced “the dangers of . . . marginalisation of our language”. Eminent linguist and professor at the Collège de France Claude Hagège spoke of a “self-destructive urge” and a “suicidal plan”.

Foreign students are coveted not only for the money they pump into the French economy, but because they represent the future elites in their countries. Some 220 million people around the world speak French today, making it the eighth most-spoken language. English is second, after Chinese.

Defending her law, Ms Fioraso notes that India counts 60 million specialists in information technology, but sends only 3,000 students annually to France. “We have to create partnerships, and to do that we have to offer courses in English,” she says. “Otherwise, we’ll be stuck with five experts on Proust sitting around a table.”

On Thursday and Friday, Dr Eamon Maher of IT Tallaght will chair the 10th annual Franco-Irish Studies Conference at the University of Rennes II – in English, as well as French. But Dr Maher believes the law is a mistake.

“As a Francophile and a Francophone, I look to France as the one country that has stood up to the use of English,” he says. “Who is going to say ‘no’ anymore? It’s going to be just the American project and the McDonaldsisation of the world.”

Close to 800 courses are already taught in English, according to Libération , which yesterday published its front page in English, with the headline “Let’s Do It”. France “must stop acting like the last representatives of a besieged Gallic village,” its editorial stated.

French schools of business and engineering, and political science institutes, have offered courses in English for years, ignoring the 1994 Toubon Law which specifies French as “the language of teaching, examinations and theses”.

Scientific language
Pre-eminent French scientists, including Nobel prizewinners Françoise Barré-Sinoussi and Serge Haroche, pleaded to legalise teaching in English, in an open letter published by Le Monde .

“Scientists the world over use English to communicate,” they wrote, adding that the plan “favours France’s integration in the world and strengthens its attractiveness ”.

If English prevails, others warn, France will cease to generate new scientific vocabulary. “If we let English into our universities, if we let it alone speak of science and the modern world, French will become poor and mutilated,” Bernard Pivot, a leading literary figure, wrote in La Croix newspaper. “French will become banal, or worse, a dead language.”

Opponents of the law may take comfort from the French proclivity for complicating everything. Foreign students are already deterred by the difficulty of obtaining French residence papers.

Ms Fioraso claims only 1 per cent of university courses will be taught in English. Under pressure from the 40 socialist deputies, the provision will be limited to programmes resulting from agreements with foreign universities or financed by the EU. A convention justifying English content will have to be drawn up for every course that is taught in the language of Shakespeare.