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 the second-most-spoken language in France, and the source of rich street slang. An estimated 5 million French citizens have family roots in the Arab world, mainly in Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia. Yet teaching of the language in schools is regarded as suspect, if not dangerous, in many quarters. A mere 13,000 French pupils study Arabic — just 0.2 percent of all secondary-school students who take a second language.
Yet the fastest-growing option in France is now Chinese. The number of its students has tripled, though only to 39,000, over the past decade. Today, there are three times as many French pupils studying Chinese as Arabic.
To counter popular prejudice against Arabs and Arabic, education minister Jean-Michel Blanquer argues that teaching of Arabic should be made more widespread. He says Arabic should be granted “prestige as a very great literary language”, and studied not only by those of north African origin. Teaching it in school, Blanquer argues, could also be a way of controlling how it is taught. Most Arabic classes currently take place beyond the reach of school 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 Blanquer’s proposal has kicked up a nasty row. Nicolas Dupont-Aignan, a right-wing nationalist, calls it “the beginning of the Arabisation of France”. Teaching Arabic in schools, claims Robert Menard, the far-right mayor of Beziers, would herald “the birth of another nation right in the heart of France”.
Even mainstream media 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.