An American who argues that French scientist must publish in English if they wish to halt the decline of French scientist influence has provoked reactions here ranging from denunciations of linguistic imperialism to regretful agreement.

"The nature of France is at stake. It would be a national tragedy with incalculable consequences if we were to abandon French as a scientic language," former Prime Minister Michel Debre wrote in protest to the respected French science magazine La Recherche.

But Jean David, a biologist in Lyon, confessed that he has a growing tendancy to publish in English. While he would have killed to have seen French established as the international scientific language he wrote, "I must, alas, admit that it is English."

The continuing controversy was sparked by an article in last September's La Recherche by Eugene for Scientific Information in Philadelphia. The institute published the Science Citation Index, which attempts to judge the influence of scientific articles by counting the number of times they are cited in subsequent articles.

"French science today seems to be in decline," Garfield wrote. He said that the Science Citation Index indicates that articles in French scientific tournaments are rarely cited by scientists publishing in other journals. To combat this neglect he recommended that the most eminent French journals be translated into English. In addition, he said that French scientists must adopt English as their scientific language.

"No one denies that French scientists should be able to enjoy international recognition," Garfield wrote. "But this recognition is being sacrified to a lost cause - the defense of the French language by artificial means."

In his rejoinder, which appeared two months later, Debre accused English-speaking scientists of chauvinism, and said that adoption of English would encourage the brain drain and would be as irreparable blow to French culture.

Christian Vidal of the University of Bordeaux agreed. "Greece did not die at the time of the Roman invasion, but little by little, as the Greeks had the "wisdom" to realize that they must adopt Latin, the true international language," he claimed. He called Garfield's insistance on English "linguistic imperialism."

The editor of one scientific journal responded to Garfield with an editorial recommending that French scientists publish in French more, not less.

But the laments of other French scientists indicate that linguistic patriotism will not solve their problems. In the current issue of La Recherche Professor David of Lyon argues that French scientists are forced to use English to survive fierce international competition.

"It's not enough to get results and make discoveries, you must also make you sure you get credit for them. Saxon scientists inspired by research published in French, who more or less forget to indicate their sources," he wroter.

Remy Chauvin, of The University Rene-Descartes, compained that when French scientists speak in French in "all their English speaking colleagues get up and leave." Yet in English, he said - echoing the plaints of many Americans in France - "our constributions to the discussions are often lamentable because, we haven't completely understood. Added to our accent, this makes us sound retarded."

One French doctor commentend ironically on a compatriot who dipped into Greek to form the word "tricholeucocyte" rather than adopt the English term "hairy cell" (or cellule chevelue) to describe a form of leukemia.

"Let us carefully defend the privileged possibility Latin and Greek give us to form words that are perfectly French - and totally incomprehensible," he wroter.