Society

Quelle Horreur! Outrage At Plans To Teach French University Courses In English

A proposed bill that would allow the use of English in universities has set off an uproar among intellectual champions of the French language.

Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève, Paris
Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève, Paris
Benoit Floc'h

PARIS - Is France about to sacrifice its own language on the altar of educational competitiveness? A proposed bill on higher education, which arrived in Parliament on Wednesday, has triggered a raging debate.

The new law would make it easier to teach classes in a foreign language (for instance in English), “in the case of a partnership with a foreign or international body, or as part of a European program.”

France currently ranks fifth on the list of study destinations, and remains an attractive country in its traditional sphere of influence – Maghreb and Africa –, but it is losing ground. Encouraged by universities and schools, the government now wants to attract students from emerging world powers: Brazil, China, India, Indonesia…

There is a lot at stake: France has a chance to shine internationally and to show it can educate the world’s elite. Even if the Agence Universitaire de la Francophonie (a higher education and research association of French-speaking countries) insists that there is an increasing number French Departments in universities around the world, the government considers it necessary to facilitate the use of English in French universities.

Paris - MPD01605

Thomas Piketty is “very concerned” about the issue. Piketty teaches at the Paris School of Economics, where lessons are taught in English, and is aware of what is at stake: “Either we do not teach these students, and they will go study in English-speaking countries, or we take part in the global political economy, and then we do what is necessary to attract them here.”

French Minister of Higher Education Genevieve Fioraso explains: “India has a population of a billion people, with 60 million engineers among them. Currently, there are only 3,000 Indian students in France. It's ridiculously low.”

On May 8, this newspaper published an opinion column written by eminent scientists (Nobel laureates Françoise Barre-Sinoussi and Serge Haroche, Fields Medal recipient Cedric Villani) in support of the minister’s initiative. “Scientists around the world use English to communicate,” they wrote. The bill therefore “allows France to get better integrated, by making it more attractive on the world stage.” Fioraso is quite alone in defending this law, and she hopes this prestigious support will bring the debate down a notch.

On March 21, the most prestigious institution for French language and culture, the Academie Française, published a rather abrasive declaration highlighting “the dangers of a measure that presents itself as a technical change, when it is actually marginalizing our language.”

The Academie is urging Parliament to vote against the bill. Next in line is renowned linguist Claude Hagege, professor at the prestigious College de France, who hurled a hawkish “We are at war!” to the minister. He used terms like “self-destructive urge,” “cancer,” and “suicidal project.”

Fears that French fizzles out

So is French really in peril? On March 31, philosopher Michel Serres, who teaches at Stanford University in the U.S., raised the alarm on national radio: “A living language is a language that can say everything.” His mother tongue, the regional Gascon dialect, from southwestern France, died because one day “it was not able to name everything anymore: things like polyhedron, DNA, computer, galaxy…”

“A living language is also an iceberg,” he says, “the part of it that we can see on the surface are the words that we use in our everyday language.” But for him, what counts is what’s under the surface: all the specialized languages that are vectors of specialized knowledge.

“A language is only the addition of all these specialized sub-languages,” he insists. “If a language loses two of these sub-languages, it is virtually dead. Teaching in English would induce the disappearance of these sub-languages, and therefore reduce our country to a colony, where the language cannot say everything anymore.”

His charge is brutal, but the minister does not seem shaken. Fioraso calls for calm, and insists that “only 1% of all university courses” would be taught in English. In elite business schools, the proportion varies between a quarter and a third of all classes. “The use of English will be limited to some specific courses, whose content justifies the use of the English language. This is what President Hollande and I wrote to the board of the Academie Française.”

Even if France loves a heated argument, most intellectuals who joined the debate are being more moderate in their remarks. “Banning the use of English would be as unreasonable as imposing it,” Piketty points out. As often, the issue is not black and white, it is mostly shades of grey. “We need to enable people who do not speak French to come to our country,” he says.

Antoine Compagnon, professor at the College de France and at Columbia University, is against the project, “but not completely opposed to a small proportion of classes being taught in English, as long as they are not lectures.”

For his part, Axel Khan, former President of the Paris-Descartes University, agrees with most of the bill, but declares: “We need to use French to conceptualize the world and design our future. I feel very strongly about keeping French as the only language during the first years of university, until students get their degree. But during Masters and PhDs, we should be able to use the language of international communication.”

In any case, in her letter to the Secretary of the Academie Française, Fioraso made it clear that “A perfect command of the French language would be a condition for foreign students to validate their diploma. Thus, we would not be relinquishing our language but, on the contrary, increasing the number of French speakers around the world.”

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Geopolitics

Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3

-Analysis-

LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.


Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

commons.wikimedia.org

Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

If nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

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