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Article 2 of a new law on higher education and research relaxes a 1994 “Toubon” law, which stipulated that French must be used in universities and all but banned lessons in another language and visits from foreign guest teachers.
Education unions had called a strike on Wednesday in protest at the measure, but few teachers and researchers took part.
Geneviève Fioraso, the minister for higher education, said she was “delighted” the article had been approved, saying the criticism of the proposed law was more “posturing” than conviction and had given France, “the land of universality and Enlightenment, a narrow-minded image”.
She hopes that introducing more English-language lessons will increase the number of foreign students at French universities from the current level of 12 per cent of the total to 15 per cent by 2020.
During the debate, mainly Right-wing MPs staunchly opposed opening the door to more English in university classes.
“Shall we speak English in this French Parliament one day? ” Daniel Fasquelle, a university professor and MP for the UMP party exclaimed in English. “This is a very bad signal for French language speakers around the world.”
Conservative MP Jacques Myard said: “A people that speaks more and more in a foreign language loses its identity more and more.”
“It is not with this mumbo-jumbo that you will penetrate the Chinese, Arab-Muslim or Latin American markets,” he said.
Centrist MP Rudy Salles warned that it was a further blow to a language “already not in a position of strength”.
One MP, Sophie Dessus quoted celebrated French author Jean de La Fontaine, who wrote: “Refrain from selling the heritage that your parents left you, a treasure is hidden within.”
In previous days, the influential Academie Francaise, the official guardian of French, had also warned the new rule risked “marginalising our language” while oat leading figure in French cultural circles, said it could turn French “into a commonplace language, or worse, a dead language.”
But Miss Fioraso insisted the new rule would in “no way question the primacy of teaching in French or the defence of the French language.”
She dubbed the row “wonderfully hypocritical” as for the past 15 years France’s Grandes Ecoles – its Oxbridge-style hothouses for the country’s future elite – have “flouted the Toubon law without anyone saying anything against it.”
The new law would iron out this “de facto (linguistic) inequality”.
Thierry Mandon, Socialist parliamentary spokesman, said the “amusing debate” masked the real problem in France, namely that since 2006 “less and less people who pass the baccalaureate pursue their studies at university”.
Detractors were in part placated by a Socialist amendment that stipulates that lessons will only be in English “when they are justified by teaching needs.”
Pouria Amirashi, a Socialist MP who had opposed the change, said the new amendment was a sufficient “safeguard” that French universities would not become “all English” overnight.