On my daughter Grace's 7th birthday the other day, the English-language class in her French school sang "'appy birzday to you". Grace was rather touched, even though she was born in Paris and insists that she is, in fact, French.
A couple of weeks earlier, I left Grace's parents' evening with a father who was even older than me. He complained all the way down the street, and halfway down the next, that his seven-year-old daughter was receiving only half an hour's English tuition a week. "It doesn't matter to you. Your child already speaks English," he said. "But for my daughter, it is vital. It could affect her whole future."
Even a decade ago, it would have been inconceivable for a prosperous French man in his fifties to make such a remark, but France is in the middle of one of its periodic outbursts of linguistic self-flagellation. An official report has suggested that children, from the third year of primary school onwards - ie, seven- to eight-year-olds - should be taught English as part of the core national curriculum. The report said that it was essential for all young French people to learn English, the "language of international communication".
Howls of protest. First, from the teaching unions on the left, to whom the notion of compulsory English is part of an Anglo-Saxon, liberal, globalist conspiracy to abolish the French way of life. A few years ago, I was at a conference of the Parti Socialiste when the then- education minister, Claude Allègre, said that English was no longer a foreign language but a basic skill, like maths. There was prolonged hissing from the many teachers in the hall.
Second, howls from those within the Gaullist, or worse, traditions of the French right, who have not yet accepted that - for good or ill - English has won its long battle with French to become the international, and increasingly, the European lingua franca. (It's all Napoleon's fault: he should never have flogged Louisiana to the infant United States.)
At the same time, most well-heeled - and right-wing - families are clamouring, like the father of Grace's classmate, for more English teaching. Private schools (for the most part, Catholic schools) are tripping over themselves to offer ambitious-sounding English programmes. Last June, we hosted an end-of-year party for my son's class of 14-year-olds from a pushy Catholic school in Paris. I asked them where they were spending the summer. At a colonie de vacances? At grand-mère's house in the Loire? No. They were all off on lengthy visits to the United States. One of the boys was going to West Virginia, which, presumably, left him with the only hillbilly accent in the 16th arrondissement.
French teaching unions are very concerned, and rightly so, with the Republican principle of equality of chances for all. The report on the future of education in France says that the level of English taught today in most state schools is poor and declining.
The children of the social élite are equipping themselves to remain in the élite by spending the summer learning English in the United States. Meanwhile, the equality-preaching teaching unions oppose plans to provide children from poorer backgrounds with the basic English skills that they will need to succeed. I have great sympathy for the arguments of President Jacques Chirac, and others, against the invasion of all languages and cultures by a kind of pidgin English or "Globish". I am all for efforts to preserve and promote the rich, wonderful and infuriating French language, and all other rich, wonderful and infuriating languages. (Arguments against monolingualism may sound hollow, however, in Brittany, the Languedoc and Corsica, where the French state has done all in its power to stamp out minority tongues.)
All the same, the future political and economic strength of France, paradoxically, demands a country of English-speakers. A strong France capable of defending Frenchness and the French language, in the world and in the EU, will require an English-speaking business and political class. It is absurd to suggest that this will make France somehow less French. The two most fluent English-speakers in French politics are Jacques Chirac and Dominique de Villepin. Anglo-Saxon co-conspirators? Hardly.
Chirac shown up by franc exchange
After almost three years in circulation, the euro has been painlessly accepted by most people in France. There are a few elderly people, however, to whom the new currency will always be something a mystery. Here is a conversation recorded in a brand-new, hi-tech cowshed in the Cantal the other day.
Ageing visitor: "How much did this building cost?" Young farmer: "In euros or in francs?" Ageing visitor: "Er, in francs." Young farmer: "Well, 94,000,000 francs... old francs." (Old francs were abolished in 1960.)
The visitor was Jacques Chirac, President of the Republic. He will be 72 this month.
NY, Milan, Powys
I received a telephone call out of the blue from an earnest, well-spoken Englishman who wanted to give me a story about scandals in the health service. He asked me to call him back on a British mobile-phone number.
"I am a patient in a mental hospital near Brecon," he began. Er, yes. He began his story about the shortcomings of the NHS. "But why are you calling me in France?" I asked. "You're in France?" he said. "Oh dear. I rang The Independent and asked to be given the number of the Powys correspondent."
Psychiatric patient or not, he had a sense of humour. He was still chuckling as I put the phone down.
My assistant, Rhiannon Harries, says that the joke is an old one in Wales. What do you call the Welsh Tourist Board? "The Last Quango in Powys."Reuse content