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.

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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.”