French right on warpath over teaching Arabic in schools

French Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer
French Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer RFI

French Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer felt obliged to deny he was planning to make Arabic compulsory in primary schools on Tuesday. He was reacting to right-wing politicians who had slammed his comments on a report saying the language should be more widely taught in the state system.


The controversy was a "typical case of media uproar", Blanquer told LCI television after politicians of the mainstream and far right lined up to criticise his reaction to the report by the Institut Montaigne.

"I never said Arabic should be compulsory in primary schools," he insisted.

The liberal thinktank said that the number of pupils studying Arabic in French schools has halved over the last 10 years, while the number learning it in mosques has increased 10 times to about 80,000.

It called for efforts to reverse the tendency as a means of countering Islamic fundamentalism.

Responding to the report on Monday, Blanquer agreed that Arabic is a "very important language", like Chinese and Russian, and that it should be "developed" and "given prestige", rather than left to "communitarian" bodies.

Nor should it "just be learnt by people of north African or Arab origin", he added.

"Playing with fire"

His comments drew an angry reaction from several politicians of the mainstream and far right.

Blanquer was "playing with fire", according to Robert Ménard, the far-right mayor of the southern town of Béziers, who claimed that the proposal would "legitimise the birth of another nation in France" with "incalculable consequences".

A porject with "inclaculable consequences", Robert Ménard

Perennial presidential candidate Nicolas Dupont-Aignan, who backed the National Front's Marine Le Pen in the deciding round of last year's election, said it would open a "fatal sequence for the country".

He was "totally hostile to the Arabisation of France and the Islamisation of the country," he told France Inter radio.

Le Pen, whose party is now called the National Rally, "didn't wait long before wallowing in the politically correct, while her partner and fellow MP, Louis Aliot, criticised "an ideology of submission".

"This is to adapt to the problem rather than resolve it," Laurence Sailliet, the spokesman of the mainstream right Republicans, told RFI. "How can we imagine today that every effort should not be put into teaching the French language?"

"Privileging the teaching of Arabic in school is to fracture France and strengthen communitarism," tweeted Republicans MP Eric Ciotti.

Teaching Arabic "fractures France", Eric Ciotti

And former education minister Luc Ferry asked if "this is really about fighting Islamism or allowing it to enter the education system".

"Sad individual"

Blanquer hit back, with a particularly sharp response to Dupont-Aignan, telling him that he was a "sad individual", who "plays into the hands of those you claim to be fighting by scandalously distorting what I say".

Dupont-Aignan a "sad individual", Jean-Michel Blanquer

"There is an enormous paradox today in being accused of connivence with rampant Islamism at the very moment that I make concrete proposals to change the situation," he told LCI.

Arabic teaching in France, the figures:
  • The study of modern languages was recently made compulsory in primary schools;
  • 567 pupils attended Arabic classes in primary schools in 2017-18;
  • 1,500 attended Chinese classes, while 91.7 percent of pupils studied English;
  • 11,500 pupils studied Arabic in secondary schools in 2017-18;
  • While the number studying Arabic has fallen over the last 20 years, it has risen over the last 10 from a low point of 6,512 in 2007.

Figures: French Ministry of Education

Daily newsletterReceive essential international news every morning