Mon Dieu! Researchers Fret as France Debates More English in French Universities

The French Parliament is soon to debate a draft bill that would establish a new framework for the nation's higher education and research systems. Many scientists have already criticized the proposal for ignoring several funding and employment issues. Now, however, some researchers worry that those concerns—and the importance of English in science—are being eclipsed by a high-profile debate over provisions that would expand the use of English in French universities.

"I find this a little sad as a debate," says Joël Bockaert, a member of the French science academy who directs a biomedical research collaboration in Montpellier.

At the heart of the controversy is the bill's proposal to relax a 1994 provision that makes the use of French compulsory in higher education except in foreign language classes or in classes given by invited professors from abroad. The new law would add two more exceptions by allowing foreign languages to be used in classes that are offered either as part of an agreement with foreign institutions or that belong to a European program. The idea behind the measure is to help attract foreign students to France and to better prepare French students for a globalized world, the Ministry of Higher Education and Research explained in a document accompanying the new draft bill, which was presented by science minister Geneviève Fioraso on 20 March. Unless France makes such efforts to attract foreign students, Fioraso told Libération, "we will be left to having five people discussing Proust around a table."

But some prominent academics, especially in the social sciences, saw the proposal as a threat to the French language. On 22 March, the French Academy called on lawmakers to prevent the changes, saying they favored "the marginalizing of our language."

Yesterday, Fioraso defended the measure in a radio interview, clarifying that "French remains the language of teaching of all our universities." But exceptions to the rule have been broadened, "mainly in the scientific fields [of] exact sciences," she added. "These are above all the human and social sciences that got upset, and justifiably, because … the accuracy of the concepts that are used, it is very difficult to translate."

The debate is a " disconcerting quarrel," six prominent scientists argued in Le Monde earlier this week. The group included Nobel laureate and virologist Françoise Barré-Sinoussi and others who last year helped lead a national consultation on the draft bill. Many universities have already started to use English as the teaching language for some of their courses in line with scientific and education needs, they noted, so "the voices that raise in the name of the defense of the French language thus seem to us totally out of touch with reality."

"Placing our country into a linguistic bunker is a defensive and harmful fight," an anonymous group of researchers and university professors wrote in Le Monde on 25 April. It "will not increase the influence of our higher education and research," they added. "On the contrary, [it] carries the risk of penalizing a youth that doesn't need any additional hurdles to enter the international scene."

Other researchers, including Bockaert, echo such views. French science students would benefit from a better mastery of English, the current lingua franca of science, he says. Offering some classes in English starting at master's level would be "the minimum" universities should do to welcome foreign students, he adds. And because the law doesn't actually impose the use of English, "it really is a useless debate," he says.

The debate over English is "a micro-phenomenon of diversion," sociologist Vérène Chevalier of Université Paris Est-Créteil - Val de Marne and the research association Sauvons la Recherche (SLR), told ScienceInsider. There is no such debate going on within the ranks of SLR, she adds. "The French press only talks about that. But if this was the only problem that there was in the law, we would all be happy."

To call attention to those other problems, French trade unions, science groups and researchers are planning a national protest to be held in Paris on 22 May. Among their major concerns are how the bill would allocate funds to researchers and universities, create large ensembles of universities that would reduce the role of students and staff in the decision-making, and affect the job stability of researchers on short-term contracts.