Opposition to opening universities to ‘other languages’

Champions of the French language are opposing a measure that will open the way for universities to teach courses in languages other than French – notably English. The measure is included in the Higher Education and Research law, known as ESR, that is due to come into force later this year.

Under legislation passed in 2000 to protect the French language, it is currently compulsory to teach university courses in French except in clearly defined cases – foreign language studies, or if the education is given by a visiting foreign academic. Examinations and thesis presentations must be in French.

Some institutions manage to circumvent the rules, but they are technically breaking the law.

Geneviève Fioraso, minister for higher education and research, now intends to loosen universities’ linguistic shackles.

In the hope of increasing France’s share of international students, the ESR act will allow universities to teach in other languages – which, everyone understands, means in English – when courses are part of an agreement with a foreign or international institution, or part of a European programme.

Fioraso said the move would “put an end to a hypocrisy. It’s a positive sign addressed to English-speaking foreign students,” she told Le Figaro. “We count 12% of foreign students and we hope to raise this to 15%” by 2017.

She thought that opposition to the reform was about “a resistance to change. To attract young Indians we must offer education in English. For Koreans to get to Proust, we must go via English."

Representatives of the CPU and CGE – presidents of the universities and of the grandes écoles – support amendment of the restrictive law, which they have complained is a strong impediment to attracting the best international students to France, especially those from China and India.

But not everyone is in favour.

The Académie Française, constitutional guardian of the French language, issued a declaration against the “attack on the status of the French language in universities”. It wished to “draw attention to the dangers of a measure which is presented as a technical application, while in reality it promotes marginalisation of our language”.

In Libération Professor Antoine Campagnon, historian of French literature at the Collège de France in Paris and Columbia University in New York, allowed that scientists needed English to survive, “to distribute their research, publish in international journals, apply to European, and even French, calls for tenders”.

English was the global academic and economic language, and France lagged behind other countries in Northern Europe, Germany and Italy, he wrote. But, for example, Americans who were sent to study in Germany found their courses were given in English and they returned home without improving their German.

Campagnon quoted Fioraso, who had claimed that if courses in English were not authorised “we will find there are just five of us discussing Proust around a table”. But, asked Campagnon, did she not know the contribution that Proust and literature in general made to the influence of France, for which it was one of the most lucrative consumer attractions?

While foreign students should be offered courses in languages other than French when they arrived, they soon learned to cope in French. “Use of the national language must be maintained in courses, examinations and theses – especially those on Proust,” he wrote.

An opinion piece in Le Figaro described the reform as hypocritical, because its reference to teaching in ‘foreign languages’ was a euphemism for English.

It was badly timed because exemptions already existed allowing higher education institutions to teach in English, and what had until now been an exception risked becoming the rule. It was insulting to French-speaking countries and Francophiles, and especially the numerous francophone students who wished to study in France but could not because of its restrictive visa policy, Le Figaro opined.

It was also anti-republican because it attacked the constitutional principle that French was the language of the republic, and it was anti-democratic because it would inevitably lead to closure of certain courses in French, thus penalising French and other French-speaking students.

Students who wanted to study in English would continue to do so in English-speaking universities, said Le Figaro.

A petition against the introduction of courses in English at French universities has been launched by the political party Union Populaire Républicaine, or UPR, which campaigns for France’s withdrawal from the European Union, the euro and NATO.

By Friday its petition had collected more than 7,400 signatures.

The UPR claimed that the legislation would lead to the destruction of the French language and culture, and turn France into an American colony.

“We are being asked nothing less than to scupper one of the greatest world languages and to bray in the language of McDonald’s to satisfy the aims of ‘profitability’ of a global oligarchy which counts for nothing faced with the peoples and the history of the world,” it said.