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French MPs ward off English 'invasion' at universities

Photo: Michal Osmenda

French MPs on Tuesday urged parliament to strike down or amend a bill championed by the minister of higher education that would allow certain university classes to be taught in English to boost France's standing in international academia.


French MPs on Tuesday urged parliament to strike down or heavily amend a bill that would allow universities in France to increase the use of English in classrooms, amid fiery debate over the best way to elevate the country’s standing in international academia.

Several intellectuals and the prestigious Académie Française, which is charged with safeguarding the French language, have in recent days called on the government to reject a law that supporters say will help attract more foreign students to French institutions of higher learning.

Several amendments to the proposed law expanding the use of English in French universities have been approved by French MPs, including one that encourages foreign students to enroll in French-language classes if they are taking a university course in English.

The bill says some university-level classes in France could be taught in English when they were part of an accord with a foreign or international institution, or if they had financial backing from the European Union.

Daniel Fasquelle, an MP with the main opposition UMP party who opposes the bill, highlighted France’s “waning influence” and told parliament he feared the new law would accelerate “the complete loss of control in certain technical and scientific fields.”

Claude Hagège, a lecturer at the prestigious Collège de France, chastised it as a “self-destructive impulse” and “suicidal project.”

But the bill, authored by Higher Education Minister Geneviève Fioraso, a Socialist, has also found detractors within her own camp. Socialist MP Pouria Amirshahi is leading a group of around 40 lawmakers who have already declared themselves against the measure.

“This bill opens the door to a terrible standardisation of the planet,” Amirshahi, who represents French citizens living in North Africa told FRANCE 24, adding that it was “the worst kind of humiliation to French speakers.”

The implications and eventual application of the law were the subjects of long debates on Tuesday at the National Assembly, with a vote expected on May 22.

Attracting the world’s brightest students

Fioraso, who was once an English and Economy teacher, has argued that France could no longer prohibit English in universities as the country sought to compete for the world’s brightest students, many who come from the English-speaking world.

“India has one billion inhabitants, including 60 million computer scientists, but we only count 3,000 Indian students [in French universities],” Fioraso recently told a group of students. “We look ridiculous.”

The minister has received the support of some of France’s most distinguished scientists, like Nobel laureates Françoise Barré-Sinoussi and Serge Haroche. In a May 8 opinion piece in the Le Monde newspaper they and others argued that the law “promotes the position of France in the world by increasing the country’s attractiveness.”

Others say the law is important to level the standard of education among all French university students. Current legislation restricts most university-level classes to French, but in many business schools and other eminent graduate-level universities classes in English already make up one-quarter to one-third of students’ course load.

However, MP Amirshahi doubted the law would help attract more international students, as some experts claim. “Higher education in France already enjoys considerable strengths, like low costs and its focus on culture… France has no calling to become a destination for English-language learning.”

(Picture in main used under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license)

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