August 2006 issue

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France uncertain

Pockets of civil unrest in France at the end of 2005 and earlier this year affected the market for language schools in some areas of the country although elsewhere, a good performance was noted. Gillian Evans reports.

When talking of this year';s market performance, there is an air of caution among French language schools in France. At the end of 2005, dramatic pictures of burning cars and mobs of rioters in France were beamed out across the globe by the international media. Then, in March this year, university students took to the streets to demonstrate against certain regulations that were being ushered in by the government. Both these incidents have caused some language travellers to rethink their study plans, according to institutions.

Béatrice Renu at Carel Centre Audiovisuel de Royan pour l';Etude des Langues in Royan reports that the riots last year "deterred foreign students from coming to France" and, by the first quarter of 2006, she says enrolments were low as a direct result of the more "recent events in France". Sandrine Valadoux, Educational and Marketing Manager at Ecole Perl in Paris, also reports low numbers for this year. "[Enrolment figures are] very bad – a fall of almost 30 per cent - thanks to the [university] riots and the [depiction of these by] the media."

But not all schools have suffered. At Education en France in Paris, the effects of the civil unrest in France have not impacted on bookings, says Delphine Crevelle at the school. "So far, enrolments for our summer programmes are higher than last year at the same time and include a [good] variety of nationalities," she reports. "Even though the events in France did not help, with several groups kept their bookings on hold waiting to see what would happen next."

An additional factor has also hampered the market, according to sources. Florence Gaudry, Director of Studies at Accent Français in Montpellier, believes that there is a general trend away from learning French in France. "For numerous foreign countries, France is not the ‘ideal country'; any more," she says, adding that Spain is often chosen over France. Renu also believes that the French language has lost its appeal internationally. She notes, "[There is] no real dynamic promotion at government level of French learning."

Notwithstanding these negative influences, the French language market performed relatively well last year, with many sources reporting a hike in student numbers. At Accent Français, enrolments increased by 10 per cent in 2005, according to Gaudry. "We are growing because we develop new courses without much competition from other schools in France," she asserts. At Ecole Perl, numbers jumped by 15 per cent in 2005, which Valadoux puts down to their marketing as well as favourable exchange rates.

French language schools cannot be accused of resting on their laurels when it comes to marketing. "We recruit by the Internet," says Gaudry. "That';s why we have 40 different nationalities at [the] school. Now we want to extend our market with agent contacts. The ideal should be 50 per cent of recruitment with agencies."

Although the USA and Europe account for the majority of French language students, many schools have been spreading their marketing activities into new areas. "We [have] opened up to the Russian market and improved our numbers [from] all Eastern European countries," says Crevelle, and for 2006 they are targeting other markets. "Besides the ones that we';ve been working with for several years, in 2006 we are responding to demand from ‘new'; countries including USA, Canada, Brazil, Italy and Asia – mostly Japan – which will bring a new dimension to our international programmes."

Some schools say they are limiting their marketing campaigns to countries with which France has visa agreements, but Crevelle reports relatively few visa refusals. Philippe Minereau at Elit-Groupe St Denis in Loches also reports success in getting visa acceptance for students, but says this is because of the school';s efforts with the visa issuing authorities. "We travel a lot and meet the French Embassies'; representatives in order to explain our job and concern about young students," he explains. 

Looking to the future, many sources are reluctant to give predictions. However, Gaudry is hoping that the summer will bring a new crop of students. "After a hard winter due to social and political reasons, it is going to be a good summer!" she asserts.

Course trends

Flexibility is the key to success for French language schools in France. Sandrine Valadoux of Ecole Perl in Paris states, "It seems that students prefer to stay for shorter periods but in more intensive [courses]." She says that one of Ecole Perl';s attractions is that it offers a wider range of tuition options, from four hours a week to 28 and courses running for one to 40 weeks.

Flexibility and listening to customer demand has been the driving force behind course changes at Education en France, says Delphine Crevelle at the school. "We have experienced some changes in demand for particular courses, therefore we are adapting our product offer to match the demand. For instance, in 2006, for the summer programmes, we will be offering an optional preparation course for the Delf [exam] as well as a course oriented towards business," she says. "We also extended the dates of the programme in some destinations with a June start in Biarritz and a programme in Cannes ending later than mid-August."

As well as looking for a more intensive learning experience, schools report students are requesting courses that combine learning French with a specific interest. "More and more students are [looking] for cookery lessons and art & design courses," reports Philippe Minereau at Elit-Groupe St Denis in Loches. "We are working on this, although it takes some time to set things up." Florence Gaudry at Accent Français in Montpellier also reports a trend for "more and more specific requests" such as courses for families.

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