Page last updated at 14:51 GMT, Tuesday, 23 March 2010

EU's Baroness Ashton considers French classes

Baroness Ashton in European Parliament, 10 Mar 10
Baroness Ashton is shaping her new team under intense scrutiny

The EU's new foreign policy chief, Baroness Ashton, is considering whether she can squeeze some French lessons into her busy schedule.

France's EU Affairs Minister, Pierre Lellouche, has invited her to brush up her French at a language school near Avignon in the south of France.

Lady Ashton "obviously will have to check her diary to see if it's possible", a spokesperson for her said.

French is traditionally the language of diplomacy and of EU business.

But English has to a great extent replaced French as the EU's lingua franca since the bloc's eastward expansion in 2004. English is more commonly taught as a second language in the new member states.

French not de rigueur

Baroness Ashton - officially called the EU's High Representative - was "delighted to receive the invitation from her very good friend Pierre Lellouche", her spokesperson told the BBC.

Lady Ashton drew criticism from some French politicians for not visiting Haiti immediately after the January earthquake and for missing an EU defence ministers' meeting in Spain. She rebuffed the remarks, arguing that she had other foreign policy commitments in a busy timetable.

Mr Lellouche timed his invitation to mark International Francophone Day on Saturday.

The school he recommended is called Millefeuille Provence. It charges 3,780 euros (£3,402; $5,112) for a week-long residential course at a country chateau.

The French invitation was also addressed to the European Parliament's Polish president, Jerzy Buzek. Mr Lellouche reminded him of the importance France attached to the use of French in the parliament's communications.

Mr Buzek's spokeswoman Inga Rosinska told the BBC that he would not attend a French course any time soon because he was "extremely busy". Nevertheless, he too was "delighted" to get the invitation, she said.

She explained that for work in the European Parliament: "It's not 100% necessary to spend weeks learning French."

Mr Buzek already "speaks very good English and understands German and Russian," she pointed out.

Lady Ashton is engaged in tricky negotiations with the parliament and other EU institutions on the formation of an EU diplomatic service. The 27 member states are all vying for influence in the planned European External Action Service (EEAS).

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