France's lower house approved a plan to introduce more courses in English at universities on Thursday despite critics alleging it will undermine efforts to promote French.
A majority of lawmakers in the National Assembly approved the second article of a bill on higher education in a show-of-hands vote. The full bill put forward by the Minister for Higher Education Genevieve Fioraso is expected to be approved in the Assembly and the upper house Senate, where the ruling Socialists and their left-wing allies have majorities.
The vote followed two hours of heated debate, with lawmakers from the main right-wing opposition UMP saying the measure threatens France's identity.
"A people that speaks a foreign language more and more loses its identity piece by piece," UMP lawmaker Jacques Myard said.
But Socialist lawmaker Thierry Mandon called the controversy "a storm in a teacup" and accused opponents of having "a phobia of foreign students".
The measure, which would also introduce lessons in languages other than English, aims to increase the number of foreign students at universities from 12 percent of the total to 15 percent by 2020.
But the proposal has had its critics including the famed French language protectors at the Academie Francais, as well as journalists and authors.
In an opinion piece written for The Local French writer, Frederic Werst, one the leading campaigners against the bill said the change in law will not have the desired impact of attracting the best students to France.
"The Minister argues that this move would help attract the best foreign students to France. But this is deluded. The universities of choice for the best English-speaking students will naturally be in Anglo institutions. For them, French universities would only be a fallback option," Werst said.
"The minister is blinded by a utilitarian ideology which believes that knowledge is a commodity and a language is simply packaging. But this is false: language itself is knowledge and the ability to speak several languages is extremely enriching.
"If you want to be competitive and attractive, then this is what we need too promote – not monolingualism, which only leads to poor results.
Other critics say it will harm decades-long, zealous efforts to protect the French language, while supporters argue it will improve the employability of French youth and the attractiveness of the country's universities.
Several teaching unions have also attacked the measure.
France has for decades zealously propagated the use of French both at home and abroad through cultural institutions and the French-speaking Francophonie
bloc of nations.