The news that French teaching unions are preparing to strike rather than allow the use of the English language in French universities is yet further evidence that French has comprehensively lost the global struggle against English, and so the French are retreating into absurd linguistic nationalism in a protracted, yet probably doomed, rearguard action.
We now see a ludicrous situation whereby French universities that want to increase the number of foreign students, and teach some lessons in English, are prevented from doing so, and visiting guest teachers from abroad who intend to speak in English are banned. With France facing record unemployment and a stagnant economy, its unions are nevertheless actively attempting to prevent people being taught in the global language of business: English.
The higher-education minister. Genevieve Fiorasco, has warned the unions that if the anti-English-language laws aren’t loosened, French universities will eventually wind up with “five people around a table discussing Proust.” In reply, the Académie Francaise, which regards itself as the guardian of the French tongue, has insisted that English words like “marketing” must be replaced with “mercatique,” while Courriel, an organization dedicated to defending the French language, has denounced Fiorasco’s plans as “linguistic assassination.” Such morbid metaphors are echoed by intellectuals like Bernard Pivot, who has warned that “if we allow English to be introduced in our universities and for teaching science and the modern world, French will turn into a commonplace language, or worse, a dead language.”
This might sound like classic Gallic exaggeration—there are 110 million people around the world who speak French as their first language, and 190 million as their second—so French is hardly yet on a par with Latin and Ancient Greek. Yet leaders of the teaching unions, such as Claudine Kahane of the Snesup-FSU, are ready to strike, saying: “It is the cultural heritage that is at stake.” It all points to a nagging worry on behalf of the French, who understand that their tongue simply cannot compete in the open marketplace, however much it is, as Pivot rightly boasts, “the language of Molière.”
The French Government is right to try to weaken the notorious Loi Toubon, which was passed in July 1994. Named after the culture minister who framed it, Jacques Toubon, the law’s 24 articles provided that French would be mandatory across in the fields of “instruction, work, trade and exchanges and of the public services,” also for “the designation, offer, presentation, instructions for use, and description of the scope and conditions of a warranty of goods, products and services as well as bills and receipts. The same provisions apply to any written, spoken, radio and television advertisement.” Furthermore, “Any inscription or announcement posted or made on a public highway, in a place open to the public or in a public transport system and designed to inform the public must be expressed in French.” All contracts “may neither contain expressions nor terms in a foreign language where a French terms or expression with the same meaning exists.”
Since 1994 the Loi Toubon has been used against several American and British companies, such as the Disney Store on the Champs Elysée and the Body Shop retail store, which had the effrontery to have labels in English. The French Government also attempted to outlaw “le weekend,” “les drinks,” “l’aftershave,” and “le babysitter” on pain of hefty fines, though this proved unworkable.
Sooner than permit their beautiful and ancient tongue to compete in the open marketplace of global tongues, the French set up a further scheme for linguistic protectionism in January 1997 when a law required pop-music radio stations to play French-language songs for at least 40 percent of the time. By contrast, the United Kingdom attempts to protect the various non-English tongues spoken within her borders. Although only one fifth of the residents of Wales speak Welsh, the language is given equal status and authority throughout the principality, which is entirely bilingual in road signs, public institutions, and its Assembly.
According to a European Commission report in 2001, English was being spoken by more than one in three of the 350 million citizens of the European Union, whereas fewer than one in 10 spoke French outside France itself. Four years later France’s Higher Audiovisual Council ordered television channels to translate the titles of popular programmes and cartoons into French. Popstars was instructed to become Vedettes de Variétés, La Star Academy became L‘Ēcoles des Vedettes, Funky Cops was transformed into Des Flics dans la Vent and, most unwieldy of all, Totally Spies became Des Espions à Part Entière.
Going on strike will not save the French tongue, but it will expose quite how far it has fallen since it was the world’s “lingua franca.”