Is France really trying to ban speaking English in the EU?

French and English are both used within the EU
French and English are both used within the EU. Photo: Julien Wanand/AFP
France has long been keen to preserve the French language and stop the creeping 'anglicisation' of international discourse - but is it really trying to scrap English as one of the working languages of the EU?

What has happened?

A French MP, Julien Aubert, has put forward a proposal to make French the only working language of the EU, arguing that Brexit has removed a large number of native-speakers of English from within the EU.

His proposal states: “The withdrawal of the UK from the EU has had a number of consequences for how EU institutions organise their work and exchanges.

“English is now the mother tongue of just one percent of the population of the EU, while French is the second language of many members and is the most-practised foreign language, after English.”

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What is the rule on language?

The EU has 24 official working languages: Bulgarian, Croatian, Czech, Danish, Dutch, English, Estonian, Finnish, French, German, Greek, Hungarian, Irish, Italian, Latvian, Lithuanian, Maltese, Polish, Portuguese, Romanian, Slovak, Slovenian, Spanish, Swedish.

However the three most commonly-used languages for meetings are English, French and German while the European Central Bank works in English and the European Court of Auditors works mainly in French.

In the European Parliament, members can speak in any of the 24 working languages and simultaneous interpretation is provided.

English and French tend to be used for the small committees and discussion groups, and during press conferences.

Does Brexit change this?

Brexit means that the percentage of the EU population who have English as a first language has shrunk, but there are still two EU countries that have English as an official language; Ireland and Malta.

Although English is now the native language of fewer EU residents, it remains one of the most commonly-learned foreign languages, which means that many people have it as a second language and it can provide a handy bridge between countries who don’t speak each other’s language eg a Frenchman and a Dane might communicate in English.

Within EU institutions English began to be more widely used as a communication tool with the expansion of the Union to include countries such as Poland and Hungary, whose languages are not widely learned across Europe.

There is an increasing development of ‘Brussels English’ – a form of English that is most easily comprehensible to the large number of non-native speakers, but can sometimes sound slightly bizarre to British or Irish ears.

What happens next?

Aubert, an MP for the centre-right Les Républicains party in France, has put his proposal for discussion in the Commission for European affairs within the French parliament, the Assemblée nationale.

The proposals “invites the French government to engage in negotiations with the members of the European Council”.

In other words, he first has to get the committee to agree with him, then persuade the French government to take it on, then the French government would need to persuade all other members of the European Council to drop English.

In short, he has a long way to go and this seems pretty unlikely to happen.

So English is safe?

For the moment it looks like English is here to stay within EU circles.

However France takes on the rotating presidency of the European Council on January 1st, and could use the role to push for the use of more French in official communications.

Do the French really hate the English language?

This is the traditional view, but things are changing. President Emmanuel Macron, as well as being an ardent Europhile is also a fluent English-speaker and is happy to do so in public.

Europe minister Clément Beaune is also a fluent English-speaker after doing his Erasmus year in Ireland and is frequently seen giving interviews in English, while several members of Macron’s cabinet speak good English and appear to have few hang-ups about using it.

Within France, younger people are more likely to speak English and even those who don’t frequently throw a few random English words into conversation if they want to look cool.

READ ALSO The English words that will make you sound cool in France

Member comments

  1. The minister is talking out of his derrière. There are conservatively around 300 million Europeans who have English as their second language.

  2. Methinks Monsieur Aubert is doing a bit of kite flying! Never going to happen, English is the “second official language” in Ireland and we’re not leaving the EU anytime soon!

    1. But it’s very doubtful he spoke English, so not really a good example but I know what you are getting at.😉

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