French Education Minister Luc Chatel has said he wants schoolchildren… (Harold Cunningham / Getty…)
Reporting from Paris — For the best part of its 376 years, the Academie Francaise has fought to keep the French language as pure as the driven neige.
In recent years this has meant that the 40-strong council, whose peer-selected members-for-life are known as "the immortals," has been waging war on what it sees as the pernicious influence of what is often referred to as "the language of Shakespeare."
That means no English Trojan horses: The weekend must be fin de semaine (end of the week); there are no cookies in your computer, only temoins de connections (connection witnesses); and if you write a blog, download a podcast or indulge in online chat, you'll have to ecrire un bloc-notes, obtain a telechargement pour baladeur or engager un dialogue en ligue.
Such is the strength of feeling that another group of language lobbyists here, Avenir de la Langue Francaise (Future of the French Language), declared the invasion of English words a more "serious threat" to Gallic identity than the Nazi occupation of World War II.
Now, quelle horreur, the enemy is within: French Education Minister Luc Chatel has declared that schoolchildren should be taught English in nursery school from the age of 3. Chatel says he wants to "reinvent the learning of English" in schools and plans to look at better ways of teaching foreign languages.
"Today in France, not mastering English is a handicap," he told French television. "We know the earlier you start learning English, the easier it is to pick up other languages when young. This idea is not to the detriment of other languages; however, English is a priority."
The proposal has sparked howls of protest from teachers arguing that the priority should be instructing French schoolchildren to speak their own language properly.
Writer and political commentator Eric Zemmour described the idea of such mandatory English teaching as a "colonization of spirits."
"For a long time we were proud of our language and resisted," he said. "Gen. De Gaulle made it a point of pride to never speak a word of English."
Linguistics specialist Claude Hagege described the increasing hegemony of English as "linguistic imperialism" and a "menace."
"I have devoted much of my life to fighting the domination of English," said Hagege, one of whose books was published in translation in 2004 by the University of California Press as "Against the Death of Languages." "The future of humanity is in diversity, not uniformity."
This is not the first time a French government has tried to promote English teaching in schools. Two years ago, President Nicolas Sarkozy said he wanted to "make France a bilingual nation"; and in 1989, then-Education Minister Lionel Jospin, a Socialist, introduced mandatory English for 9- to 11-year-olds. That program, consisting of two to three hours of instruction a week, remains in place.
In 2004 a cross-party parliamentary commission recommended — without success — that English be afforded the same importance in schools as French and mathematics.
French, once the language of international diplomacy, has been in serious decline across the European Union since Sweden, Austria and Finland — whose representatives preferred to speak English — joined in 1995.
Two years later, European Commission data showed that 40% of its documents were being written first in French, compared with 45% in English. By 2008, the figures were 14% French and 72% English.
In 2006, then-President Jacques Chirac stormed out of a European Union summit when a French business leader addressed delegates in English. Chirac said he was "deeply shocked."
Over the years, France has used legislation in an attempt to slow the spread of English, including the so-called Toubon Law of 1994, which made the use of French obligatory in official government publications, state-funded schools, public advertisements and workplaces.
At any one time, several ministerial commissions are working on alternatives to Anglo-American expressions,
It is a tortuous process: Suggestions must be approved by the Academie Francaise and the Delegation Generale a la Langue Francaise et aux Langues de France (French Language and Languages of France General Delegation) before being rubber-stamped by the Commission Generale de Terminologie et de Neologie (General Commission on Terminology and Neologisms) and published in the government's Official Journal.
In the last 15 years, the terminology commission — a 17-member Economics Ministry body that meets once a month to coin new economic, scientific, legal and financial words — has proposed more than 1,000 French-language equivalents, among them jeunes pousses (young shoots) for start-up companies and accueil dore (golden welcome) for golden handshake.
Incidentally, members failed to agree on whether a golden parachute was a parachute dore (golden parachute) or a parachute en or (parachute of gold).
Although some of the linguistic dictates of the Academie Francaise have been adopted, including courriel for "e-mail" and eblabla for "chat," , Anglicisms such as "weekend," "Post-it" and "airbags" have thus far proved ineradicable.
In the end, though, much of the French public utters whatever trips most comfortably off the tongue, whatever the linguistic lobbyists think.
And when a word like "subprime" becomes pret hypothecaire a risque, who can blame them?
Willsher is a special correspondent.