In parliament, the press and the academy, France is bitterly divided over whether its universities should be allowed to teach courses in English. However, recent findings show that the use of the language is widespread in French higher education, suggesting that the intense debate has been overtaken by events.
On 28 May, the French National Assembly passed a bill to reform higher education, paving the way for greater university autonomy and changes in governance. But it is Article 2 of the legislation, which concerns courses in foreign languages, that has provoked uproar among politicians and academics.
Under current legislation known as the Toubon Law, all university courses must be taught in French, with exceptions for language and so-called “international” courses.
The new legislation, which is set to be examined by the Senate this summer, does not scrap the Toubon Law but extends the exceptions. Under the provision, universities will be able to run courses in English if they have agreements with foreign institutions or are part of European higher education programmes.
Pierre Tapie, president of the business school ESSEC and head of the Conférence des Grandes Écoles, which represents France’s elite institutions, said that the reform was a step in the right direction.
“English is the language of globalisation, much like Latin was during the Middle Ages,” he argued. “International students should be given the opportunity to study in France and the French need to progress in English.”
Dr Tapie added: “It means less and less to say that the English language threatens the use of French. Some people, however, perceive globalisation as a threat and associate English with it.”
Many academics and politicians nevertheless accuse the government of failing to defend the French language. The Académie Française, the country’s pre-eminent learned body on matters pertaining to the tongue, has called for the bill to be shelved.
However, recent findings show that the majority of French researchers use English on a regular basis and believe it to be the key to academic success.
According to a recent report by INED, the French National Institute for Demographic Studies, 83 per cent of academics admit that English dominates their area of research. Around 25 per cent give classes in the tongue from time to time or on a regular basis, it adds.
François Héran, director of research at INED and the report’s author, said the findings show that the row is irrelevant.
“The debate on the use of English is obsolete and it is largely dominated by literary researchers and the Académie Française,” said Professor Héran. “Their point of view is very narrow and not applicable to the rest of French academia.
“I’m a scientific researcher and I fail to see what legitimacy the Académie Française has in dictating what language I use.”
In his report, Professor Heran writes that French is already marginal in the sciences.
English is also advancing in the humanities, with one-third of academics publishing in the language.
The INED report also shows a change in mentality in recent years. While 67 per cent of researchers born before 1955 think that using English contributes to Anglo-American cultural dominance, the ratio drops to 40 per cent for researchers born after 1980.
Many think the change in legislation will better arm French universities to compete on the global stage and attract the best international students.
“Certainly it will open the door to just that, but rest assured, universities will not be obliged to run courses in English,” said Dr Tapie.
“Some grandes écoles and universities are open to running courses in English,” he added. “It is especially relevant within the grandes écoles, which train students in professional areas such as business or engineering.”
He denied that the legislation was a government push to boost the number of overseas students in France.
Nevertheless, the UK’s universities may find that competition for international students is about to get even hotter.