French academics split on allowing English in school

The Guardian, Paris

Sun, May 12, 2013 - Page 6

Former French president Jacques Chirac once stormed out of an EU summit because a French business leader was speaking it; another former French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, lamented his lack of it, while the incumbent, 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 as 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.

However, in reality, a number of French universities, including some of the most prestigious, have disregarded the legislation and have been steadily using English in lectures and seminars, for example in master’s courses on subjects such as the sciences, technology, economics or business where a kind of “global English” has become the norm.

The government has now decided the ban should be relaxed.

In a new higher education law to be debated this month, 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 program or in partnership with a foreign institution.

However, a row has ensued as a number of academics have vented their rage. The Academie Francaise, guardian of the French language, appealed to French politicians to oppose the plan, claiming the new law “favors a marginalization 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 prize winners, hit back in an open letter to Le Monde, saying that 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, criticizing 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.