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English language proposal has French up in arms

There was a time, not so long ago, when anyone with a proper education spoke French. Diplomacy and business were conducted in French. Knowledge was spread in French. Travelers made their way in French and, of course, lovers traded sweet nothings in French.

Viewed from France, the trouble with modern times is that many of those activities are now conducted in English, even by the French. In a country that cares so much about its language it maintains a whole ministry to promote it, that alone is enough to stir passionate debate in Paris – in French, naturally.

But Higher Education Minister Genevieve Fioraso this week introduced a bill that would allow French universities to teach more courses in English, even when English is not the subject. The goal, she explained, is to attract more students from such countries as China, Brazil and India, where English is widely taught.

“Ten years ago, we were third in welcoming foreign students, but today we are fifth,” she said in a Q&A in the magazine Nouvel Observateur. “Germany has put in place an English program that has passed us by.”

The idea has sparked cultural and nationalist outrage – not only from Paris intellectuals, but also from several dozen members of Parliament, opposition as well as Socialist, who insist that learning French should be part of any foreign student’s experience in France.

The controversy flows from the same wellspring as France’s effort to maintain anti-foreign barriers and cultural subsidies. Without government help in limiting imports and financing local artists, it is feared, French culture will soon be swamped by a tsunami of American products.

“Not only would such a reform be contrary to the Constitution (which provides in its Article 2 ‘the language of the Republic is French’), but you cannot image an idea that is stupider, more counterproductive, more dangerous and more contrary to the interest of France,” Jacques Attali, an adviser to the late Francois Mitterrand, wrote in a blog.

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