Ex-minister on a mission to put Arabic into French schools and hearts

Jack Lang, a former education minister and president of the Institute of the Arab World, describes the language as a 'treasure of France'

President of the Arab World Institute (IMA) Jack Lang arrives for the Chanel Women's Fall-Winter 2019/2020 Haute Couture collection fashion show at the Grand Palais in Paris, on July 2, 2019. (Photo by LUCAS BARIOULET / AFP)
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One of France’s most respected political figures has launched a campaign to make Arabic lessons widely available in French schools as part of a struggle to protect the language from “ideological, demagogic and populist manipulation”.

Jack Lang, 80, a former education and culture minister and president of the Institute of the Arab World in Paris, describes the language as a “treasure of France”, but one afflicted by a lack of public awareness of its place in national and international history.

Arabic is the world’s fifth most commonly spoken language, with 430 million users in more than 60 countries.

Four million people speak it in France, but even among those with roots in the Maghreb or other Arab-speaking areas, everyday use of both classic and modern versions is negligible.

Only one French pupil in 1,000 has access to Arabic lessons at primary school and only two in 1,000 at secondary level.

Mr Lang has urged the French government to order a massive increase to "restore to Arabic its place in public education and beyond that, its recognition and dignity in our society".

France was the first European country to promote the use and instruction of Arabic five centuries ago when King Francois I forged an alliance with the Ottoman Empire stretching from Turkey to South-West Asia, South-East Europe and North Africa.

The empire was headed in the 16th century by a ruler known in the West as Suleiman the Magnificent and Al Qanuni or "lawgiver" in the Islamic world.

Mr Lang says a programme to extend Arabic needs to be long-term and no longer vulnerable to “electoral transitions and partisan affiliations”.

He told The National his successors at the education ministry had failed to follow through reforms he introduced from 2000 to 2002 to boost the number of Arabic teachers and courses.

But, he said, even people fuelled by “stupid xenophobia”, who resent hearing or seeing unfamiliar languages, should recognise the practical advantages of widening Arabic’s availability in public education.

Marie-Claude Quignon, a French  visual artist , working in a Palestinian refugee camp. Courtesy Marie-Claude Quignon

“If it is not taught in school, the only places to learn will be in religious settings where the risk of Islamist influence would be higher,” he said.

The Arabic language and cultures cannot be reduced to Islam

In a furious exchange on the French television channel CNews, Mr Lang was accused by a right-wing writer, Eric Zemmour, of being a “useful idiot” aiding a process of “re-Arabising France in order to re-Islamicise it”.

Mr Lang threatened to leave the studio but retorted: "You are the agent of Islamicisation. You'd leave the teaching of Arab in the hands of propagandists and manipulators whereas I want language teaching to occur inside the school."

In his book, La Langue Arabe, Tresor de France (The Arabic Language, a French Treasure), Mr Lang describes the language as a "the beautiful unknown".

He writes: “When you learn Arabic, you get a host of versions. The unsophisticated reader must enter into this complexity, what linguists call diglossia, the coexistence on a given territory of several varieties of the same language, with different uses.

“This is one of the paradoxes of this beautiful language: modern and classical Arabic have never been used as mother tongues. No one has ever spoken modern Arabic to their children, nor has anyone ever spoken in Quranic Arabic in everyday life. Everybody has continued to use their own dialects to communicate orally.”

He is critical of what he identifies as a tendency to regard Arabic and Arab culture as unavoidably linked to religion.

In flowery terms, he says the language has become an object of contrary fixations, “for some discredited, quarantined by merchants of fear or hatred who cling to a stunted conception of what France should be; for others, a vector of rupture”.

Mr Lang said the study and recognition of the Arab world and cultures is more necessary than ever.

But if the Institute of the Arab World were being created today, he believes there would be calls for it be named the Institute of the Muslim World as the even though a majority of Muslims are not Arabs.

“The Arabic language and cultures cannot be reduced to Islam,” he says.

“In a secular framework, such as advocated by republican law, what better way to transmit elements of culture than through learning the language? It is through language learning that we discover the multiple aspects of a civilisation.”

The French education ministry did not respond to The National's request for comment.

The IMA has already acted on Mr Lang's commitment to Arabic, having run courses for all ages and levels for more than 20 years and more recently offering an internationally recognised certificate, so far allowing 500 students to sit for qualifying exams in France and other countries, including the UAE.

Mr Lang is not among them.

“Sadly, I speak only a little Arabic, not well enough to hold a proper conversation,” he said.