Georgia Tech Lorraine in Metz, eastern France, the European branch of the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, has become the first higher education institution in France to be taken to court for using English on its Web site.
Messages of support and indignation came in from around the world as Georgia Tech faced charges that it has infringed the 1994 law on the use of French.
Two associations for the defence of the French language brought the case, arguing that the English-only Web site violated the law that says that goods and services must be offered, described and explained in French.
The only appearance of the French language on the site comes in bilingual directions on how to reach the school, which opened in 1990 to provide postgraduate courses in specialised areas of electronics and telecommunications.
"The fact that we work primarily in English makes it natural that we use English on the Internet," explained Hans Puttgen, head of Georgia Tech. "We have English hyperlinks with other Web sites, including Atlanta, but if you click on Ecole des Mines, one of our French partners, you move into French."
Puttgen, like the other Metz staff members, is an American faculty professor. All the teaching of the Atlanta curricula for master of science degrees at Georgia Tech takes place in English. But Puttgen goes further in arguing that the school is actually promoting the French language and culture. "A number of the students take a joint degree with a French partner institution and students arriving from the Far East, the United States or Africa take an intensive French course. This means we are promoting the French language," he argued.
"France has a well-established, well-recognised language and culture and should be continually promoting them, not defending them," he concluded.
When the law on French was passed in 1994, it caused an outcry in academia over measures to restrict public funding to French-language research publications only and enforce the use of French in conferences and conference documents.
Culture minister Jacques Toubon claimed its aim was to "ban the banning" of the French language from parts of French life by encroaching English. But opponents warned it would lead to "Orwellian situations".
A judgment on the Web site is expected in about a month's time.