Word gamesTeaching Arabic in France

Some people will play politics with anything

ARABIC is a “perfect, smooth and rich language”, wrote Ernest Renan, a 19th-century French thinker, who praised its “extensive vocabulary, the accuracy of its meanings and the beautiful logic of its structures”. Today Arabic is considered the second-most-spoken language in France, and is the source of rich street slang. An estimated 5m French citizens have family roots in the Arab world, mainly in Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia. Yet the teaching of the language in schools is regarded in many quarters as suspect, if not dangerous. A mere 13,000 French pupils study Arabic—just 0.2% of all secondary-school students who take a second language.

Not surprisingly, the vast majority of French pupils choose English as their first foreign language, with fully 5.5m pupils enrolled in classes in secondary school. Although German was once the traditional second choice, it has long been overtaken by Spanish. The fastest-growing option in France is now Chinese. The number of its students has tripled, though admittedly still to only 39,000, over the past decade. Today there are three times as many French pupils studying Chinese as Arabic. Few French schools offer Arabic at all. “Why on earth would you want your children to learn Arabic?” was the tart response to inquiries by one French diplomat, returning to Paris after a spell in an Arab country.

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To counter such views, the education minister, Jean-Michel Blanquer, argued earlier this month that the teaching of Arabic should be made more widespread. He says that Arabic ought to be granted “prestige”, he pleaded, “as a very great literary language”, and studied not only by those of north African origin. Teaching it in school, Mr Blanquer argued, could also be a way of controlling how it is taught. Most Arabic classes currently take place beyond the reach of schools inspectors, in mosques or Koranic classrooms. A new report by Hakim El Karoui for the Institut Montaigne, a liberal think-tank, recommends an increase in official Arabic classes as a means of curbing hard-line Islamist teaching.

Yet Mr Blanquer’s idea has kicked up a nasty row. Nicolas Dupont-Aignan, a right-wing nationalist, called it “the beginning of the Arabisation of France”. Teaching Arabic in schools, claimed Robert Ménard, the far-right mayor of Béziers, would herald “the birth of another nation right in the heart of France”. (People seem less worried by the language of the once-hated Anglo-Saxons.) There has been much dark muttering about the prospect of teachers in headscarves, which are banned in state schools under French law. Louis Aliot, a far-right deputy and partner of Marine Le Pen, condemned the proposal as part of an “ideology of submission”.

Even the mainstream right has voiced outrage. Arabic, declared an editorial in Le Figaro magazine, “is not a language like any other” but “a weapon used by those who want to separate Muslims from the rest of the French community”. The point could be made the other way around. Unless French schools help to take teaching of Arabic out of the hands of imams and into the classroom, Arabic will remain a badge of religion rather than a respected world language like any other.

This article appeared in the Europe section of the print edition under the headline "Word games"
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