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Parlez-vous Anglais? Non, we prefer French

In France, Nicolas Sarkozy's idea that children should learn English from age three sparks a war of words

In France, Nicolas Sarkozy's idea that children should learn English from age three sparks a war of words

The British, or more specifically the English, are said to have little in common with the French beyond an equal measure of arrogance. But there is another similarity: we are hopeless at learning each other's language.

Doubtless inspired by his own experiences, President Nicolas Sarkozy has set his mind to addressing the French share of that mutual failing. But his belief that children should start learning English as young as three has hit a wall of protest from compatriots anxious to protect Frenchness from Anglo-Saxon cultural dominance.

A few years ago, when a French newspaper rated ministers' command of English, Mr Sarkozy was among the majority classed as peut mieux faire ("could do better"). He has made an effort since becoming president, but clearly still finds it a struggle.

Perhaps his own limitations have made him more committed to boosting pupils' chances. He is backed by education minister Luc Chatel, who describes an inability to speak English as a handicap in the modern world.

Mr Sarkozy's critics have pointed to a written parliamentary question posted a year ago by Francois Loncle, who served as a minister under former president Francois Mitterrand. Declaring himself fed up with the president's persistent errors and "vulgar" expression, he waited 11 months for a response. It came from Mr Chatel, who defended Mr Sarkozy's preference for straight talk instead of convoluted syntax.

Mr Loncle took this as an admission of guilt. There is, sadly, no recorded response to his remedy: that the education minister who is so keen to "reinvent" the study of English should offer his president night classes in French.


Linguist Claude Hagege, who speaks some 50 languages, says six is a more realistic starting age than three, while social commentator Eric Zemmour says French resistance to learning English is a subconscious defence against the "colonisation of minds".

In a radio essay, he noted that a French intellectual of the 1970s, whose view he seemed to share, had likened an obsession with English to learning German during the Nazi occupation.

On the online forum of L'Express, some 160 views were posted in eight days. "It would be better to concentrate on learning spoken French," said one reader, Marenostrum. "As a primary schoolteacher for nearly 30 years, I see each year a decline in children's vocabularies."

But Othello welcomed the idea, citing his five-year-old daughter: "She has been taking English lessons every Saturday for two years in a group of about 10. She already speaks well and it has done no harm to her French."

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