Paris 2
Paris, with the Eiffel Tower in the foreground. Reuters

France’s parliament will debate a measure on Wednesday that will allow state universities to offer more courses in English as well as other foreign languages.

Genevieve Fioraso, the higher education minister, said the measure is designed to raise the number or foreign students enrolled at French universities – the government wants to raise the percentage of such students to 15 percent by 2020 from the present 12 percent level.

Specifically, Fioraso would like to amend the Toubon law of 1994, which specified that French must be the language of all teaching in schools and universities, as well as the language of all official government publications.

But, according to a report in Agence France Presse, some elements in French society -- including teachers unions and academic organizations, like the prestigious Academie Francaise -- are appalled at the idea since they fear the teaching of foreign tongues will further erode French culture and identity.

Unions in the education sector have threatened to go on strike in the proposal passes.

"It is the [French] cultural heritage which is at stake,” said Claudine Kahane, a senior member of Snesup-FSU, a major education sector union.

Bernard Pivot, a prominent journalist and member of the Académie Goncourt, a French literary organization, warned that “if we allow English to be introduced into our universities and for teaching science and the modern world, French will be vandalized and become poorer. It will turn into a commonplace language, or worse, a dead language.”

French traditionalists are also annoyed by the increasing use of English in daily conversation – and especially by the “Franglish” frequently used by French youth.

AFP noted anecdotally that English phrases are now appearing on Parisian graffiti and in such mundane activities as phone greetings.

Even members of the ruling Socialist Party oppose the plan to increase English classes.

Pouria Amirshahi, a French politician of Iranian descent, told AFP: “The signal given out to those everywhere who learn French is not reassuring.”

French author Frederic Werst is vehemently opposed to the plan. "The problem is that this bill envisages the creation of university courses that would provide instruction in a ‘foreign language,’ which of course, would be English,” he told The Local newspaper.

“This would then see French removed from some courses. As an advocate of linguistic diversity, it seems to me a bad idea. … The [education] minister argues that this move would help attract the best foreign students to France. But this is deluded. The universities of choice for the best English-speaking students will naturally be in Anglo institutions. For them, French universities would only be a fallback option.”

A few weeks ago no less a figure than Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault demanded that government ministers refrain from using English in official documents.

Ayrault’s ire was peaked after Industrial Renewal Minister Arnaud Montebourg and Michèle Delaunay, the minister for the elderly, coined the English phrase “silver economy” to describe a new government initiative to help the elderly.

“The language of the Republic is French,” Ayrault said in the letter to the cabinet, according to the French daily newspaper Le Figaro.

“Our language is able to express all of our contemporary issues, as well as describe all innovations in the fields of science and technology.”

However, some in France believe learning foreign languages, particularly English, which remains the dominant tongue of global business and finance, will become increasingly necessary if France is to compete economically.

“We have been in favor of this [measure] for many years,” said Khaled Bouabdallah, vice president of the conference of the heads of universities. “Foreign students who normally shun our universities will come. … For our own students the mastery of English is an important aspect.”

Jean-Loup Salzmann, president of the Conference of University Presidents, who also supports the teaching of English classes, believes France must face modern realities.

"English has become the international language no matter what the pessimists think," he told The Local newspaper.