French leader provokes uproar with 'teaching Arabic leads to terrorism' jibe

Interview provides latest twist in debate over learning Arabic in French schools

French Member of Parliament and president of the French right-wing Debout la France (DLF) party Nicolas Dupont-Aignan speaks  during a session of questions to the Government at the French National Assembly in Paris on June 5, 2018.  / AFP PHOTO / Bertrand GUAY
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A leading French politician has claimed that the teaching of Arabic in the country's schools leads to Islamist extremism and terrorism, setting the alight the country's fraught debate on the public place for the language.

The leader of Debut la France Nicolas Dupont-Aignan used a television interview to reopen the dispute, sparked by the publication of a think tank report written by a leading expert Hakim el Karoui, which made the case for offering Arabic lessons in public schools.

“When a country has an integration issue, when a country has generations who speak Arabic at home and who speak bad French, I say the priority in those quarters is to teach French,” Mr Dupont-Aignan said in the interview.

Asked whether teaching Arabic would lead to Islamism or terrorism, he responded: “This is the danger. I believe so.”

Mr Dupont-Aignan worked in several ministerial offices and founded his own party in 2008 following a row with the UMP, the party of former President Nicolas Sarkozy.

The exchange drew an immediate wave of criticism from political figures, including Nathalie Goulet, a member of the country's senate, who mocked Mr Dupont-Aignan chauvanism. “Eating couscous [leads to terrorism] too… it is pathetic #racism, cretinism, illiteracy… we must stop this, we are scraping the bottom of the barrel,” she said.

There was contrasting support on the far-right, which seeks to capitalise on the issue. Plaza Pascal, a local representative of nationalist and hard Eurosceptic political party The Patriotes, tweeted Mr Dupont-Aignan’s words followed by the question: “The far-right family grows bigger?”

Franco-Algerian lawyer and founder of the League for the Legal Defence of Muslims (LDJM) Karim Achoui weighed in saying that “the media offensive against [the Muslim community] is daily and extremely violent” and that “this is no longer freedom of speech but hate speech.”

French citizens also took to Twitter with jokes on whether learning German leads to embracing Nazism or whether learning Italian makes one become a “pizzaiolo”.

The debate was sparked by a report by Institut Montaigne senior fellow Mr Karoui, who proposed a wholesale overhaul of the role of the French state in its relations with Islam, including offering Arabic in public schools as an alternative to classes offered by mosques and religious centres.

A nephew of the former Tunisian prime minister Hamad El Karoui, the author told The National that the tensions seen today are a product of bitter historic struggles between different communities. "For those Muslims who are caught in the middle, the best way to deal with it is to take action," he said.

Mr El Karoui believes that teaching Arabic in schools is one way to promote understanding of the Arabic language, culture, and history, as well as to unite against Islamism.

Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer last month said he was open to implementing the initiative proposed by Mr El Karoui. “We have to give prestige to these languages,” he said. “This is particularly true in the case of Arabic, which is a great literary language which must not only be learned by people of Arab origin.”

His comments caused uproar from a number of right-wing parties including Debut la France, with Mr Dupont-Aignan saying he would oppose the “Islamisation of France.”

“Under the pretext of combating fundamentalism they are preparing us for the Islamisation of France… I find this unhealthy. I am totally hostile to the Arabisation of France and the Islamisation of the country,” he said.

Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Rally, said “it won’t take long before we’ll all be wallowing in political correctness. What we want from him [Mr Blanquer] is that our children master French, which has not been achieved yet.”

Former education minister Luc Ferry, of the centre-right UMP party, expressed scepticism and asked who would be holding these courses. “Public education has very little control over recruitment. Who is going to teach the classes? And how are they going to be monitored?”

President of The Republicans Laurent Wauquiez also weighed in, saying that “favouring the teaching of Arabic in schools means fracturing France and reinforcing [the divide between communities]. Integration in Frances is dependent on the respect of the law and cultural assimilation.”