Libé’s Full Frontal Makes a Point in English

Libé, pop-paper of the trendy Left, has shocked the nation by publishing a front page entirely in English — while subversively failing to provide French sub-titles!

Liberation subversively making a point as a row brews over using English as a teaching medium.

The splash comes as feelings on university campuses and among what would once have been Left Bank cafe intellectuals, run high over plans to offer some courses at French universities … in English only.

This rather tenuous scheme to improve the nation’s level of English — France gets poor marks generally for English-language skills —  has provoked frothy debate, online petitions and heated headlines, all tending to obscure the main issue, which is yet another effort at university reform seemingly set to hit the buffers.

The petition has been signed so far by 10,000 people, see breakdown here.

Petition to stop the use of ‘american’ in French university courses.


 The issue has flared up at a time of ongoing economic gloom, with youth and graduate unemployment rising inexorably thanks to the Eurozone crisis.  (France 24 has just reported that the economy “fell back into recession as an equally severe recession affecting the 17-nation eurozone extended into a sixth quarter — longer than the slump that hit the region during the financial crisis of 2008-2009. French GDP dropped by 0.2% in Q1 2013  INSEE the national statistics agency, said”).

The National Assembly or parliament is about to discuss a proposal to teach some classes in English at French universities in a modernising move that has sparked concerns for the soul and identity of France.

French minister for higher education Geneviève Fioras has stirred a hornets next over her plan to teach some courses on campus in English “to give our children a chance to compete in a globalised economy”

The Socialist minister piloting the change, Geneviève Fioras (above), argues that in the long-term her scheme would help secure jobs for French graduates– notably in the sciences —  in a globalised economy where English is the predominant lingua franca.

The availability of such courses would, she maintains, also boost the number of non-French-speaking students coming to France to study and thus further enrich the nation’s talent pool. 

Not unexpectedly leading the outcry opposing her is the highly influential Academie Francaise — an illustrious body set up in 1635 to be the guardian of all that is cherished in the language and the culture. It had no qualms in accusing the minister of linguistic treason.

The row comes with the annual Cannes Film Festival in full flow. This, the biggest festival of its kind, is a timely reminder of the importance of the French film industry in supporting l’exception culturelle française. The industry cements the role and position of French in the world of art and culture. Richly subsidised French-language films are an important tool in the national cultural armoury and in France’s self-appointed role as defender of European culture against domination by Hollywood.

For decades France has zealously propagated the use of French at home and abroad through its cultural institutions, its hugely historical role on the continent, its individualism on the world stage — seen by some as perversity —  and the French-speaking bloc of nations known as Francophonie.

But the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) which has knocked the world’s economy off its axis for six harrowing years now, has brought growing despair among the younger generation over jobs, careers and a secure future. Successive governments have grudgingly insisted the country must make greater efforts to master English, in its own self-interest.

However the cultural backlash is strong. Fellow members of Minister Fioras’s ruling Socialist party are opposed to the plan. Pouria Amirshahi, a lawmaker representing French expatriates living in north and west Africa, was cutting in his criticism. “The signal given out to those everywhere who learn French is not reassuring,” he told the French news agency Agence France-Presse. AFP reported that  Bernard Pivot, a leading figure in French cultural circles, said it could sound the death knell for  “the language of Moliere.”

Meanwhile in parliament at least one deputy offered multilingual arguments when tackling the minister about a plan he clearly disapproved of:

Le député Jacques Myard intervient en anglais… par francetvinfo 20 mai 2013 à 22:16

Defending her plan the Minister said: “There has been tremendous hypocrisy over the last fifteen years in the elite schools (Grandes ecoles where the French elite or énarques are trained for business and government) , where English has been used for teaching despite the provisions of the Loi Toubon (the 1994 Act that provides that the language of instruction in educational institutions is French). I want students in our colleges to succeed, to have the same advantages as the énarques ,” she added. 

Her supporters include a number of senior French academics who describe the proposed legislation as “an overdue recognition of reality”. While French maybe the eighth most widely-spoken language in the world English at second place, is globally regarded as the language of science.

A dozen leading scientific academics writing in Le Monde attacked the “linguistic bunkerisation of our country” which they said “risks handicapping our young people who have no need of further obstacles to international recognition”.

Writing in Libé, Alexandra Schwartzbrod and Fabrice Rousselot said “the real scandal is not the intrusion of English at University level but the intolerably poor ability of the French in the language of Shakespeare. In today’s world many young French graduates find themselves blocked in the labour market by an insufficient grasp of English. We must stop behaving like the last inhabitants of a besieged Gallic village. By increasing the number of foreign students coming to study in our universities and facilitating travel and work opportunities abroad for French students we will strengthen Francophonie, not weaken it.” 

Further reactions:

Story: Ken Pottinger

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