The government is keen to have more control over the teaching in France of Arabic, currently often delivered by mosques or religious associations.
French authorities fear that children and students learning the language in such settings could fall prey to indoctrination by Islamists who use the lessons to further a political agenda that contradicts French values.
The prominent left-leaning think tank, l’Institut Montaigne argued in a report back in 2018 that “for Islamists, Arabic lessons had become the best way to attract youngsters into their mosques and religious schools.”
In his keynote speech on Islamism last Friday, in the predominantly Muslim town of Les Mureaux, President Macron outlined plans to encourage more pupils to study the language - but not in mosques or religious schools.
He wants to improve government-run alternatives for students who want to learn Arabic, either in school or as an outside school activity.
An extra-curricular scheme for 7 year olds and upwards, that used foreign teachers trained outside France is being completely overhauled. “The lessons were too long, sometimes lasting three hours without a break,” says France’s current senior inspector of Arabic learning, Sophie Tardy.
Many of the children who took the lessons were put off the subject. The aim now is to use teachers from France employing more imaginative teaching methods.
Inside Secondary schools, relatively few pupils in France pick Arabic as their obligatory foreign language, to be examined in the Baccalauréat school-leaving exam.
Figures show it is only 8th most popular language, just behind Russian, studied by only about 0.2% of 11-15 year olds. Of those, most select the subject as a second or third foreign language and devote less time to it than for their principal foreign languages.
The lack of interest is perhaps surprising in a country which has significant economic and diplomatic links with Arabic-speaking countries and where about 3 million people speak the subject.
Most French children choose English as their first foreign language, for its obvious usefulness and perhaps because it is a language familiar from Hollywood films and pop stars.
Michel Neyreneuf, formerly a senior inspector of the teaching of Arabic in France, told the Figaro newspaper that the language had an “image” problem, citing the fact that it was often spoken in areas with a heavy concentration of social housing.
He also noted that the “unstable geopolitical situation in the Arabic-speaking world” meant school trips, which often entice students, were difficult to organize.
The language is also comparatively difficult language to learn. Classical, written Arabic is different to the many Arabic dialects – and the international version of Arabic heard on international television channels is distinct from many other spoken versions.
However, Arabic has seen a resurgence of popularity at post-secondary school level in France. A third of universities and most of the prestigious specialist grandes écoles now run courses in Arabic.