PARIS — There was a time, not so long ago, when anyone with a proper education spoke French. Diplomacy and business were conducted in French. Knowledge was spread in French. Travelers made their way in French and, of course, lovers traded sweet nothings in French.
Viewed from France, the trouble with modern times is that many of those activities are now conducted in English, even by the French. In a country that cares so much about its language it maintains a whole ministry to promote it, that alone is enough to stir passionate debate in Paris — in French, naturally.
But there is more.
Higher Education Minister Genevieve Fioraso this week introduced a bill that would allow French universities to teach more courses in English, even when English is not the subject. The goal, she explained, is to attract more students from such countries as China, Brazil and India, where English is widely taught but French is reserved largely for literature lovers.
"Ten years ago, we were third in welcoming foreign students, but today we are fifth," she said in a Q&A in the magazine Nouvel Observateur. "Why have we lost so much attraction? Because Germany has put in place an English program that has passed us by. We must make up the gap."
The idea proposed by Fioraso, herself a former English and economics teacher, sounds patriotic enough. Yet it has sparked cultural and nationalist outrage — not only from Paris intellectuals, but also from several dozen members of Parliament, opposition as well as Socialist, who insist that learning French should be part of any foreign student's experience in France.
The controversy flows from the same wellspring as France's effort to maintain anti-foreign barriers and cultural subsidies despite the U.S.-European free trade negotiations presently getting underway. Without government help in limiting imports and financing local artists, it is feared, French culture will soon be swamped by a tsunami of American products.
Culture Minister Aurelie Filippetti persuaded 13 of her E.U. counterparts to join her this week in an appeal for cultural protections to be excluded from the talks, preserving what the French call "the cultural exception."
Member states "would be compromised" if the subsidies and quotas were not assured, they warned.
One intellectual heavyweight who jumped into the English-language teaching polemic was Jacques Attali, an adviser to the late president Francois Mitterrand and a prolific author of books warning of economic doomsday or offering sweeping solutions to the world's problems.
"Not only would such a reform be contrary to the Constitution (which provides in its Article 2 'the language of the Republic is French'), but you cannot image an idea that is stupider, more counterproductive, more dangerous and more contrary to the interest of France," he intoned in a blog.
Besides, he added, foreign students already account for 13 percent of the total 2.3 million enrolled in institutions of higher learning, a bigger proportion than in Germany.
Attali was quickly joined by the influential French Academy, which warned of a "marginalization of our language," and by Michel Serres, a philosopher who portrayed the issue as a struggle against foreign — read American — domination.
"Teaching in English would reduce us to a colonized nation whose language is crushed by the colonizer," he wrote.
Internet comments revealed another fear: a widening of the gap between rich and poor. Only wealthy families can send their children to Britain or the United States to perfect their English, one writer suggested, so only those children would qualify for elite schools with courses taught in English.
On the other side of the argument, the conference of university presidents endorsed the idea, saying French-only classes are a "powerful brake" on foreign student applications. A group of prominent scientists pointed out that most of the global conversation in their fields takes place in English and it would be a good idea for French and foreign students alike to be able to have their say in that language.
Nicole Bacharan, an associate researcher at the prestigious Institute of Political Studies, or Sciences Po, who sometimes teaches in English, said the firestorm directed against Fioraso's proposal was largely a knee-jerk reaction by intellectuals who cannot accept that the era of French as the language of the educated world is over.
"I think it's an absurdity founded on the nostalgia of France as a great power, with French as the language of diplomacy, and the idea that France has a great culture that must be protected," she said.
A 1994 law requires that university classes be taught in French, but it has been interpreted over the past two decades as allowing a number of exceptions. The elite School of Higher Commercial Studies has conducted classes in English for years, as has Sciences Po.
Fioraso's proposed law would extend the authorization to a broader category of university classes, particularly those taught by foreign professors or dealing with sciences for which English is the world's main language.
Pouria Amirshahi, the lawmaker leading the charge against Fioraso, said the minister's priorities are confused. Teaching foreign languages is a fine idea, he said, but knowledge should be transmitted in a French university in French, in line with the country's "ambition of French-speaking" around the world.
Amirshahi has personal experience with the spread of French. In the National Assembly, he represents French expatriates in North Africa, where France's colonial presence left an abiding heritage of French-language education among the region's Arabic speakers.
That is a record to be maintained, he said, adding: "Where is our priority?"