What's the French for "get over it"? Don't bother asking the defenders of France's lovely and beloved language. A decade after the government of Prime Minister Edouard Balladur passed a law requiring the use of French in all government documents, business contracts, restaurant menus and advertisements, the champions of francophonie again have their culottes in a twist over the threat posed by the rampant spread of English. Opposition flared last month over a new proposal to make English instruction compulsory in French schools. Guardians of the language issued a manifesto calling on the E.U. to make French its official judicial language. Even President Jacques Chirac has joined in. "Nothing would be worse for humanity than to move toward a situation where we speak only one language," he warned last month during a visit to Vietnam, a country where nearly 1 million people speak French as a result of 70 years of colonial rule. Are the French out to defend cultural diversity or their own influence and prestige?
About 380 million people speak English as their primary language and more than 250 million as a second language, versus 113 million and over 60 million respectively for French. Despite France's annual $1 billion budget to promote French internationally, the language ranks 11th in terms of number of speakers and is flagging. Though it is still the primary language at international institutions like unesco, Interpol and the European Court of Justice and a working tongue at a score of others English dominates international diplomacy and business, and is the language used on 52% of all websites; just 4.6% are in French. Across the E.U. (and excluding the U.K.), 92% of students choose to study English as a foreign language, compared to 33% for French and 13% for German. Even French multinationals like Alstom and Vivendi have adopted English as the workplace vernacular. "This isn't about fighting English, but rather the use and influence of any language at the cost of all others," says conservative legislator Bruno Bourg-Broc, leader of a French parliamentary group monitoring the language's fortunes at home and abroad. "It's about safeguarding cultural and linguistic diversity by resisting uniformity."
Promoting French language and culture abroad has been an integral part of the country's policy for centuries. But globalization has diluted French influence. So has the allure of American pop music and cinema, which have made English both practical and cool, and a must for anyone hoping for a career beyond France's borders. So the French establishment is fighting back in the way it knows best with passionate denunciations that deny reality rather than adapt to it. That's why teachers, unions and legislators are trying to shout down the government-sponsored report recommending that English be compulsory in schools for ages 8 and up.
The day after that report came out, three senior French officials took the battle to Brussels, demanding that French be made the official language of the E.U. justice system. Arguing that French "reduced the risks of differing interpretations" in a way no other language could, the manifesto authored by Académie Française member Maurice Druon, Paris Bar Association president Jean-Marie Burguburu and the state prosecutor of France's highest court, Jean-François Burgelin calls for "all texts of legal or normative nature engaging the members of the Union" to be written in French. "This is built on a Napoleonic-era pretension that French is somehow more airtight than other languages," sighs Jacques Bille, a professor of business communication at the Sorbonne. "A lot of people in France just can't accept that English is the working language of Europe."
The best defense of French may be a strong offense. Rather than using laws and quotas to carve out a safe space for French, why not use the language to thrill the world? Crowd-pleasing French films like the 2001 smash hit Amélie fight American cultural hegemony. (Amélie star Audrey Tautou and director Jean-Pierre Jeunet are back with a World War I film, A Very Long Engagement.) The foundation of internationally successful writers like Amélie Nothomb and Bernard-Henri Lévy is, of course, their command of French. Rapper MC Solaar makes crafty, creative use of French lyrics. And Publicis ceo Maurice Lévy has assembled the globe's fourth-largest advertising network without diluting the agency's French flair. In all these cases, a willingness to use English hasn't meant selling French short. "Once you demonstrate you can do that too, it gives you more credibility when you want discussion to take place in French," notes Bille. Wise words but ones certain to provoke cries of "J'accuse!"