Le Monde (June 4th) recently featured a discussion/debate between two noted writer/intellectuals, Luc Ferry, a philosopher and a former minister for education, and Jean-Marie Rouart, novelist and academician (I have tried twice to write this word in French but Bill Gates doesn’t want me to and keeps “correcting” it). Both are men of the political right, Rouart perhaps considerably more so than Ferry. The subject is the always troubled future of the French language and in particular the threat that may be posed to it by a decision to allow some courses (one per cent of courses) in French universities to be taught in English.
Jean-Marie Rouart expresses surprise (and indignation) that a prof de philosophie cannot understand that allowing one per cent of courses to be taught in English in not “touching on a principle”. The French language, he adds, “carries with it something greater than itself, something which English does not have. English carries with it commerce.” Commerce! How disgusting!
Luc Ferry advises keeping les pieds sur la terre. France, he adds, feels particularly menaced by globalisation since the globalisation that is happening is culturally anglo-saxon. Anglo-saxon culture is fundamentally liberal and proceeds from civil society to the state. In France, whether one is talking about left- or right-wing traditions, it is the inverse. But let us not panic.
Rouart prefers to panic. Globalisation is a form of barbarism which destroys and flattens all identities, destructive on the economic, ecological and political levels. Francophone students studying in the métropole don’t want to hear English in the universities; for God’s sake “it’s as if someone had plonked down a drugstore in the middle of Chartres cathedral”.
Here, I think, we have the nub of it. The sheer old-fashionedness, the out-of-touchness, of the drugstore metaphor. Sure you can’t get a straight word out of the young folk these days, what with the jazz and the bee-bop and the hep talk. Nearly seventy years ago the French began to worry dreadfully about Hollywood films and bubblegum and gangsters and drugstores and le parking. They came to the conclusion that France was on the verge of disappearing. And yet if you go to Paris the only real changes seems to be the sad disappearance of the majestic Citroen DS and that Jack Russells have replaced poodles as the lapdog of choice (an improvement), while in provincial France everything stops for three hours in the afternoon and the small towns are full of brush shops. France (or indeed Europe) is a quite resistant organism and is not going to be destroyed as easily as all that. Courage, mes amis!