Defenders of the French language are furious at plans to introduce courses taught in English at public universities, arguing that France must protect itself against linguistic encroachment or risk losing its cultural identity.
Parliament started to debate the issue on Tuesday as part of a bill on a broader reform of higher education, but all attention has focused on an article that would abolish a 19-year ban on English as a teaching language at public universities.
President Francois Hollande’s Socialist government backs the change, which it says would help to attract foreign students and help French graduates compete in a global economy as the country struggles to regain competitiveness.
More French students fearing dismal job prospects at home, where youth unemployment is nearly 25 percent, are studying and working abroad, notably in London, which has become the city with the sixth largest French population in the world.
However, opponents of the law, who include professors, lawmakers and the French language oversight body Academie Francaise, say “la francophonie” must be defended and that the change would be a betrayal of other French-speaking nations.
“If France gives other Francophone countries the wrong signal by leading an assault against the language, that would be a very, very regrettable thing indeed,” said Claude Hagege, a linguist at the College de France state research centre.
France has long defended its culture at home and abroad, most recently in a debate over a trade deal between Europe and the United States, which Hollande says must respect a French tradition of subsidizing everything from art to cinema.
In 1994, the so-called “Loi Toubon” made the use of French mandatory in all TV broadcasts, meaning all foreign-language programs are dubbed, while radio stations must play at least 40 percent of French music for most of the day.
Seeking to promote a French world view, former president Jacques Chirac launched the France24 international news network, which now hosts 24-hour channels in French, English and Arabic, while Hollande started a Ministry for Francophone Affairs.
Business leaders decry France’s low ranking for English proficiency – it placed 23rd in a 2012 global ranking published by education company Education First – even though the use of English has grown, notably in academic circles.
Higher Education Minister Genevieve Fioraso said offering English would boost the appeal of French universities at a time when they are falling further behind in international rankings.
In a 2011-2012 survey by Britain’s Times newspaper, the highest-ranked French university is in 59th position. Private business schools where English is taught rank higher.