"French is a difficult language and it's not a language of world business, " he said. "Spanish is easier and it's a gateway into French anyway."
Mr Needham was speaking at a press conference to publicise Britain's success in education exports. But his upbeat message was swiftly buried beneath the old tale of Britain, the dunce at languages.
Gillian Shephard, the Education Secretary, who studied French and German at Oxford and later taught French, made no comment, although it is understood she was "surprised".
Seven years ago, the Department for Education did start a programme to try to break the stranglehold of French. A government-funded project launched in 1988, initially in 10 local authorities, to diversify the first foreign language taught in their secondary schools, has had some success.
Between 1991 and 1994, GCSE entries at 16 rose by 22 per cent for German and 40 per cent for Spanish, compared with 4 per cent for French. But French still dwarfs the other two principal foreign languages taught in British schools, with 296,000 entries last year against 111,000 for German and only 28,000 for Spanish.
There are signs that some of the good that came of the diversification programme is being undone, as a combination of financial pressures, primary language teaching, the national curriculum and changes in teacher training combine to shore up French.
"Things are looking a bit bleak," said Mike Zollo, who chairs the Association for Language Learning's Spanish committee. "The statistics show that GCSE entries are up, but lower down the school the pendulum is swinging the other way."
The diversification money had dried up, he said. Hard-pressed schools were losing teachers and could not afford to replace them in fringe subjects such as languages. The number of foreign language assistants had also been cut - with implications for British students studying abroad, since the programme is reciprocal. (Language assistants' numbers in English and Welsh schools has been dropping since 1990 and fell by a further 3 per cent this year, to 2,356. ) Primary language teaching is a further worry, Mr Zollo said. The Government has been allowing it to happen in a voluntary, haphazard way, and nearly all of it is French.
In general, most schools in the pilot diversification programme seem to have stuck to their new or additional first foreign languages. But some have found the pressure on time under the national curriculum too great to permit them to offer two foreign languages to all pupils, especially with league tables placing a premium on high grades. And some have had to revert to French as the first foreign language because they were unable to recruit a teacher with any other foreign language.
Peter Lawton, the co-ordinator of the Comenius Centre in Birmingham, which trains teachers in modern languages, said the Government initiative had shifted ground. Several secondary schools in Birmingham had diversified their first foreign language, mostly to Spanish because of the energetic support of a local representative of the Spanish Embassy. Its introduction had proved popular, enabling a wide range of pupils to achieve a good standard. But there was now some back-tracking, he said, because of a shortage of Spanish teachers and lack of funds to sustain in-service training.
The headache of finding an adequate supply of qualified teachers can only get worse without decisive Government intervention. Applications for PGCE courses in modern languages - the training route for 95 per cent of modern languages teachers - are down by more than 6 per cent on the figure for the same time last year. John Howson, the deputy director of the education department at Oxford Brookes University, estimates that there will be only 134 applicants per 100 places.
Within the total number of applications, figures for all separate languages have shown a varying decline, with Russian plummeting from 27 to 20, German down by 16 per cent from 465 to 389 and Spanish by 6 per cent from 245 to 229. Applications for combined languages PGCE courses, on the other hand, have risen by more than 40 per cent to 435.
Mr Howson points out that general "modern languages" courses have grown because two-thirds of the training is now provided in partnership with schools. Training institutions are therefore no longer sure what languages they will be able to offer and opt for vagueness.
Changes in the PGCE course, according to John Trafford, director of initial teacher education at Sheffield University, place question marks over the future of minority languages.
"We found ourselves in the lap of the gods as to which languages our new partnership schools could offer," he wrote recently in The TES. "Last year we were fortunate enough to be able to sustain Russian, but it could so easily have been otherwise."
Not that all the staff teaching languages in secondary schools are qualified to do so. The most recent secondary school staffing survey in 1992 found that 13 per cent of German teaching was being conducted by those with no higher qualification than A-level, while for other languages, such as Spanish and Russian, the figure was 19 per cent.
Bernadette Holmes, modern languages inspector at Essex County Council, thinks a drive to widen the foreign languages available in schools must include a massive injection of funds at initial degree level, to enable linguists to start the desired languages from scratch, plus a recruitment programme designed to give incentives to people to train as language teachers.