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PARIS (Reuters) - France sought on Wednesday to allay fears in neighboring Germany that teaching of the German language would suffer under a forthcoming education reform.
A formal commitment to promote each other's language has been vital to ties between the two countries often described as the "motor" of European Union. It was part of the historic 1963 treaty re-launching their post-war cooperation and whose 50th anniversary was celebrated with great pomp just two years ago.
German officials are so worried about the impact on Franco-German relations that even Chancellor Angela Merkel has raised the matter with President Francois Hollande.
The reform scraps arrangements under which the brightest French children can take on two foreign languages - typically English and German - on entering secondary school. Berlin fears German will lose out to English if there is just one choice.
The revamp also envisages letting children take on a second foreign language from the age of 12 - one year earlier than now. But at present, few children choose German, with many more opting for Spanish because it is considered easier.
"No way is teaching of German being called into question," Government spokesman Stephane Le Foll told reporters, adding that France would add 515 German teaching posts next year, especially targeting schools near the two countries' border.
"This reform will allow the greatest number of children to achieve excellence ... there is no cause for concern."
The current system allowing some children early take-up of two foreign languages has helped ensure that German, which is studied by about one million high school students, remains a priority language alongside English and Spanish.
But Education Minister Najat Vallaud-Belkacem has argued this mainly benefits high-performing pupils and it would be a better use of resources to offer all the chance to study at least one foreign language a year earlier at the age of 12.
"We have discussed the issue on all levels," Michael Roth, the German official in charge of coordinating Franco-German relations told Reuters, confirming that the discussions had gone up to Merkel and Hollande.
"I'm not criticizing the fact that the French education minister wants reform ... My point is that ultimately, more, not fewer, French children should be learning German."
Reporting By John Irish, Elizabeth Pineau in Paris, Andreas Rinke and Erik Kirschbaum in Berlin; editing by Mark John and Ralph Boulton