Less than one week after gay marriage legislation was signed into law, French lawmakers are once again debating a controversial bill — one that would legalize certain English-language courses at French universities. The bill — spearheaded by Higher Education Minister Geneviève Fioraso — will meet its fate in a final vote next week.
The heated controversy around it should not come as a surprise. The 1994 Toubon Law attempted to curb the influx of English and make French compulsory in schools and most workplaces; France plays host to an institutionalized reluctance to recognize regional languages; Thursday saw the legislative introduction of questionable initiative to combat racism with semantics (i.e., by removing the word “race” from national legislation). The Academie Francaise — the ever-stalwart defender of the French language — has predictably condemned Fioaraso’s bill, as have parliamentarians from both ends of the political spectrum, including forty socialist deputies, and French trade unions. (There is a soupçon of anti-U.S. sentiment at play here: see France’s opposition to an U.S.-Europe free trade agreement.) Nevertheless, the bill has already elicited broad support from academics and scientists, as well as several major French publications. On Tuesday, Liberation published its entire front page in English, declaring, “Teaching in English, let’s do it.” The bill’s most high-profile proponent, however, remains François Hollande (who, incidentally, earned widespread mockery last November thanks to a clumsily worded English congratulatory letter to President Obama).
The unpopular French leader’s endorsement of this potential PR disaster of a bill hints at the central theme of his presidency: economic need. France is struggling as much to maintain its linguistic relevance – it is the 8th most-spoken language in the world; English holds the number-two spot, behind Chinese – as it is its competitiveness on the international job market where English is the lingua franca. French students today are at a marked disadvantage compared to graduates from universities in Sweden or Germany where English is widely used, and indeed are part of a “lost generation on the continent,” as reports Blouin News correspondent Natasha Ghoneim. They face skyrocketing unemployment and an anemic European economy. The reform’s supporters believe that by expanding English use in French universities, French students will be better prepared to enter the global job market, and France will attract more foreign students and professors, notably from China and India.
To quiet critics, Fioaraso has cited the fact that roughly 1% of university courses would be affected by the bill — primarily in STEM fields. These, however, would be in addition to the some 800 courses already conducted in English in France’s top universities, many of which have disregarded the Toubon Law for almost two decades. (Spend an hour in the École Normale Supérieure’s cafeteria and you’ll hear phrases like “c’est cool” or “super!” peppering the conversation.) The English invasion long feared by French language purists is already underway. Fioaraso’s bill could set a legal precedent for a further influx of the English language in French schools — fulfillment of Hollande’s economic hopes would only broaden that precedent de facto — and beyond. After all, it has already infiltrated the National Assembly: Jacques Myard, a UMP deputy opposed to the bill, called out Fioraso on Wednesday for her support of the bill — using English as he did so. Quelle horreur.