But there is more.
Higher Education Minister Genevieve Fioraso this past 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 countries such as Brazil, China and India where English is widely taught but French is reserved largely for literature lovers.
“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. “Why have we lost so much attraction? Because Germany has put in place an English program that has passed us by. We must make up the gap.”
The idea proposed by Fioraso, herself a former English and economics teacher, sounds patriotic enough. Yet it 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 despite the U.S.-European free-trade negotiations getting underway. 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.
Culture Minister Aurelie Filippetti persuaded 13 of her European Union counterparts to join her last week in an appeal for cultural protections to be excluded from the talks, preserving what the French call the “cultural exception.”
Member states “would be compromised” if the subsidies and quotas were not assured, they warned.
One intellectual heavyweight who jumped into the English-language teaching polemic was Jacques Attali, an adviser to late president François Mitterrand and a prolific author of books warning of economic doomsday or offering sweeping solutions to the world’s problems.
“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 imagine an idea that is stupider, more counterproductive, more dangerous and more contrary to the interest of France,” he intoned in a blog.
Besides, he added, foreign students already account for 13 percent of the total 2.3 million enrolled in institutions of higher learning, a bigger proportion than in Germany.