TALLINN, Estonia (AFP) — Instead of going east to China for the Beijing Olympic ceremonies, Estonia's President Toomas Hendrik Ilves is about to set off in the opposite direction, heading to France to take a language course.
"President Ilves will be in France from August 10-16. He will not have any official meetings," his spokeswoman Kristel Peterson told AFP.
"The only aim of his trip is to attend an intensive language course at Saint-Genies-de-Comola to brush up his French," she said, referring to a town in the south of France.
"He will go to France alone, without his spouse. And as far as we know, there are no other VIPs attending the language course," Peterson added.
Ilves' office had already announced in March that he would not be attending the Olympics.
It cited the president's packed schedule, rather than concerns about China's human rights record that several other heads of state had given as the reason for staying away.
The polyglot Ilves, 54, was elected president in 2006.
He was born in Sweden to Estonian refugee parents who had fled the Soviet takeover of the country after World War II, and spent much of his life overseas before moving to Estonia after independence in 1991.
He speaks fluent English, German and Spanish, Peterson said.
He has been studying French for several years, and several months ago his office hired a private tutor.
Peterson declined to reveal how many hours Ilves would devote to his studies at the Millefeuille Provence Chateau language school, how much his course cost and whether the president was paying out of his own pocket.
According to the school's website, its week-long courses comprise 30 hours of lessons and 20 hours of other activities in French.
The cost ranges from 1,650 (2,543 dollars) in a group of up to four people, and 3,700 euros (5,703 dollars) for one-on-one lessons.
French has become increasingly fashionable among Estonian officials since this country of 1.3 million people joined the European Union in 2004, with many state institutions organising lessons for staff.
But in the country's schools, which offer pupils the option of learning two foreign languages, English wins hands down.
Eighty-four percent of pupils pick English, according to official statistics.
Some 41 percent take Russian as a foreign language. Russian is also the native tongue of around a third of the population.
German and French, meanwhile, come in a distant third and fourth, studied respectively by just 18 percent and three percent of pupils.
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