A SHARP decline in the number of overseas students in French universities has plunged France into an anguished debate over the loss of its international prestige and influence.
The statistics give a nightmare glimpse of the 21st century, in which Molière's language and culture have only a marginal role. A spate of reports detailing the spread of English throughout French society has increased Gallic angst. "Whether you like it or not, you have to speak it," the magazine L'Express said.
Students across the world have come to the same conclusion, opting en masse for degrees in anglophone countries. France, the leading higher education centre for much of this century, now lags well behind other nations, with 121,000 foreign students, compared with 198,000 in Britain and 560,000 in the United States. Overseas students, who made up 13.6 per cent of the French university
population in 1985, accounted for only 8.6 per cent in 1998.
In a recent parliamentary report, Alain Claeys, a Socialist MP, described the situation as "apocalyptic". French authorities bemoan the loss of income, noting that the overseas student market is worth £600 million a year to British universities.
Yet the biggest worry revolves around the impact on France's global image. A recent report submitted to Claude Allègre, the Education Minister, said that foreign students were "an important vehicle for the economic, cultural, scientific and educative presence, and therefore the influence, of France". In their absence, that influence will shrink to the inevitable detriment - in Gallic eyes - of the rest of world.
The entire edifice of French foreign policy is built upon the belief - some say the illusion - that France is the only state capable of offering an alternative to US hegemony.
The next round of world trade talks, opening this month in Seattle, will be the scene of feverish French attempts to roll back the tide of American enterprise and culture in an effort to create a "multipolar" planet. In this context, the failure to attract overseas students is seen as a dramatic failure. When France was a magnet for the world's brightest young people, it could lay
claim, with justification, to a fundamental international role. Now that claim appears far-fetched.
M Allègre is aware of the stakes and wants to enrol 500,000 students from abroad within four years. Last year he set up an agency, Edufrance, to promote French universities across the world.
Yet the project faces an uphill struggle, even in France's former colonies. Not only do many of the young in francophone countries say they prefer to learn English, but some complain that racism blocks their attempts to study in France.
At Nanterre University outside Paris, a 25-year-old Tunisian student is on hunger strike to protest at the entrance exam he was forced to sit. Although this was described officially as a French test, it included questions on culture that no one born outside France could hope to answer, according to the General Association of Nanterre Students.
The magazine, Le Nouvel Observateur, said: "The truth is not very glorious. France offers a poor welcome to its foreign students."
Next page: British play their part in decline
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