Christina Slade. WE chose to avoid royal wedding fervour in April to frequent a cathedral other than Westminster: Chartres, that great wonder of early gothic architecture and stained glass, close enough to Paris for friends to join us for lunch.
Elizabeth is French, Tom American, and they teach journalism at Sciences-Po in English. I was astonished. L'Institut d'etudes politiques de Paris (institute of political study, or Sciences-Po, for political sciences) is one of the grandes ecoles, those breeding grounds of the French oligarchy, for whom English remains at best an annoyance.
What is more, the so-called Toubon ruling outlaws university courses in languages other than French, except for language courses and institutions designed for foreign students.
The 184 or so institutions that comprise the grandes ecoles provide a separate and far more prestigious route for high-achieving French students than the university system.
Set up after the French Revolution to produce a scientific and administrative elite, each specialises in a particular professional track, more like a faculty than the generalist university.
Entry is by highly competitive examinations: students normally study in a preparatory college for two years after the baccalaureate, which would qualify them to study at a normal university. Most desirable are the sub-group of 23 elite grandes ecoles. Students emerge with skills, networks and, in general, magisterial French.
But times are changing. Conference des Grandes Ecoles president Pierre Tapie is calling for globalisation, more foreign students and high student fees. That means English. Feelings are running high. Francophonie is at risk.
Yet the unity of French as a language is itself a construct, laid down as it is by the Acadamie Francaise. France had, and has, numerous dialects, even separate languages: langue d'oc in the south, Catalan on the Spanish border. Meandering through Brittany en route to Chartres, we found that Breton a Celtic relative of Welsh, Scots and Irish Gaelic is still spoken.
Languages are mutable beasts. English was utterly altered by the Norman invasion of 1066. A thousand or so years later, the D-Day landings going the other way across the channel were less linguistically effective.
Languages disappear, as we know all too well: of the 350 to 750 distinct indigenous languages of mainland Australia, just more than 100 survive.
Cultures in which languages are embedded are also lost. As David Malouf put it in The Only Speaker of His Tongue, when we lose a language we lose an alternative universe, since the world as we know it is in the last resort the words through which we imagine and name it.
So perhaps the French are right to fear English dominance as the lingua franca of global culture. For the French, ce qui se concoit bien s'enonce clairement (what is well conceived is clearly expressed): grammatical error or ill-phrased thought is abhorrent.
The well-crafted sentences of the graduates of the grandes ecoles, with their sculptured and logically ordered paragraphs, are symbols of a cultural universe, of a way of seeing the world.
However, the circumstances of the arrest of Dominique Strauss-Kahn and his subsequent resignation as head of the International Monetary Fund remind us that the culture has its problems. Along with elegant French comes a sense of entitlement and a lack of sensitivity to the modern world.
Strauss-Kahn graduated from two grandes ecoles, HEC Paris (Ecole des Hautes Etudes Commerciales de Paris, a business-focused school) in 1971 and Sciences-Po in 1972. (He sat and failed the entrance examination to another, the elite administrative training school, the Ecole nationale d'administration, or ENA.) His life has been lived among graduates of the grandes ecoles, including the advertising and government elite of Paris.
It was they who identified and backed him to stand for the presidency against Nicolas Sarkozy. Of course, Strauss-Kahn is innocent until found guilty, but the press has relayed tales of his behaviour, apparently widely known and tolerated in France, which show him in a questionable light.
Perhaps it is time for the grandes ecoles to open their doors to English and the mores of the globalised 21st-century world.
Christina Slade is dean of arts and social sciences at City University London.