PARIS — There was a time, not so long ago, when anyone with a proper education spoke French. Diplomacy and business were conducted in French. Knowledge was spread in French.
Travelers made their way in French and, of course, lovers traded sweet nothings in French.
Viewed from France, the trouble with modern times is that many of those activities are now conducted in English, even by the French.
In a country that cares so much about its language it maintains a whole ministry to promote it, that alone is enough to stir passionate debate in Paris — in French, naturally.
But there is more.
Higher Education Minister Genevieve Fioraso last week introduced a bill that would allow French universities to teach more courses in English, even when English is not the subject. The goal, she explained, is to attract more students from such countries as China, Brazil, and India, where English is widely taught but French is reserved largely for literature lovers.
‘‘Ten years ago, we were third in welcoming foreign students, but today we are fifth,’’ she said in an interview in the magazine Nouvel Observateur. ‘‘Why have we lost so much attraction? Because Germany has put in place an English program that has passed us by.’’
The idea proposed by Fioraso, herself a former English and economics teacher, sounds patriotic enough.
Yet it has sparked cultural and nationalist outrage — not only from Paris intellectuals, but also from several dozen members of Parliament, opposition as well as Socialist, who insist that learning French should be part of any foreign student’s experience in France.
The controversy flows from the same wellspring as France’s effort to maintain antiforeign barriers and cultural subsidies despite the US-European free trade negotiations now getting underway.
Without government help in limiting imports and financing local artists, it is feared, French culture will soon be swamped by a tsunami of American products.
Culture Minister Aurelie Filippetti persuaded 13 of her EU counterparts to join her last week in an appeal for cultural protections to be excluded from the talks, preserving what the French call ‘‘the cultural exception.’’
Member states ‘‘would be compromised’’ if the subsidies and quotas were not assured, they warned.