Algeria’s switch to English signals erosion of France’s grip – POLITICO
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ALGIERS — In the world of diplomacy, few details are as important as language. And few languages carry the diplomatic and cultural weight that French has long boasted of.
So when the sign on Emmanuel Macron’s desk at the Algerian presidential palace last week read “Presidency of the Republic” instead of “Presidency of the Republic” in French (after all, Algeria was part of the French colonial for more than a century), diplomats and occasional observers in Paris took note.
“I wasn’t surprised but I was shocked [Algeria] would do such a thing during the visit of a French president,” said former French ambassador to Algeria Xavier Driencourt.
“It’s very deliberate. It’s a message for France but also a way of telling the Algerian people that French is nothing special, it’s a language like any other,” he added.
The choice of host language during Macron’s trip is the latest signal that the government wants to phase out French as one of the working languages of the Algerian administration. In July, Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune announced that English would be taught in primary schools from this year in what was billed as a phasing out of French. “French is spoils of war, but English is an international language,” Tebboune said.
The use of French, especially in public administration, businesses and universities, is part of a complicated legacy from the colonial era, which ended in 1962 after a brutal eight-year war of independence. France is now in a soft power battle to maintain its influence in Algeria as its former colony moves to replace French with English in schools. Arabic and Tamazight are the two official languages of Algeria, with most citizens speaking an Arabic dialect at home. Although French is not an official language of the former French colony, it is taught in Algerian primary schools from around age nine and is spoken by a third of Algerians. English is only studied in secondary schools from around the age of 14. If the Algerian government is successful, the status of the two languages will be reversed, with the teaching of English starting in primary school replacing French.
With nearly 15 million French speakers according to the International Organization of the French Language, Algeria is the third French-speaking country in the world, after France and the Democratic Republic of Congo. For France, the loss of Algeria would be a huge breach in its sphere of influence, which is a constant concern for French politicians.
“If France does not pull itself together, if it does not stop the replacement of French by English, it will lose its influence, it will lose men capable of spreading its culture and defending its interests. If there is no change, the French sphere of influence will disappear,” said Dr Ryadh Ghessil, professor of French at the University of Bourmèdes, east of Algiers.
But while abandoning the use of French is seen by some as a way to exorcise the Mediterranean nation’s colonial past, many French-speaking Algerians look askance at a decision they say is politically motivated.
“The government is trying to stimulate the use of Arabic, but also to encourage English as it is considered more culturally neutral in Algeria,” he said.
“They do it because behind every language there is a culture, and the French language creates people who are critical, who have read Camus and who are a problem for the powers that be,” he said. reference to the writer and resistance fighter Albert Camus, born in Algeria.
speaking to the world
Amid the hustle and bustle of downtown Algiers, Algerians on a lunch break take a moment to sit in the sun or catch up with friends before heading back to work or school. Outside of Mustapha University Hospital, the view on language is unanimous: most would prefer to study English rather than French as a second language if given the choice.
“English is an international language, it’s more useful than French for travelling,” said Souhali Zouaoui, a management student.
“If you want to work in Algeria, you need French, but if you want to find a job in Europe, Canada or the United States, you want English,” she added.
“Young people prefer to speak English because everyone does. French is only spoken in a handful of countries,” echoed 23-year-old nurse Abdelrahim Sakraoui, sporting fake Yves Saint Laurent sunglasses and a hipster beard.
“The history of colonization also deters us from studying French,” he added.
In this corner of Algeria, the soft power of France – a heavily subsidized cultural industry and accessible public television channels – seems to be failing to penetrate the global reach of the United States, with locals pointing to singers and films Americans as their favorites.
And the desires of younger globalized generations seem to dovetail with a historic desire of nationalists in Algeria to phase out the use of French in administration, which dates back to the early days of independence.
“This is not a new request and the move is seen as a way to break free from old colonial ties,” said Amar Mohand-Amer, a historian at a research center in the Algerian city of Oran.
“It’s cathartic, we want to free ourselves from the French language,” he said.
And according to Mohand-Amer, the linguistic question also arises whenever the Franco-Algerian relationship encounters difficulties – as was the case last year.
Macron’s visit to Algeria last week was aimed at resetting relations after the French president offended the Algerian regime by accusing it of instrumentalizing the colonial past.
Last year, the French president accused the Algerian government of being “a politico-military system” which encouraged “a hatred of France” and “benefited from the colonial past”. In response, Algeria recalled its ambassador for three months.
Consolidate French influence
Algeria’s public switch to English, the signing of a multi-billion euro gas deal with Italy in July and Algeria’s decision to hold joint military exercises with Russia in November were all signs noted in Paris and seen by some as a threat to its declining grip. the region. Macron’s visit to Algeria also came shortly after a visit to French-speaking Cameroon and Benin amid France’s military withdrawal from the Sahel region.
Many observers note that France is struggling to maintain its influence in what used to be called “la Françafrique” in the years following the independence of the former French colonies in Africa.
While the number of French speakers in Africa is expected to increase, the proportion of people speaking French in Africa is expected to plateau, according to a report by the International Organization of the French Language.
During his visit, Macron paid particular attention to the public support of the Franco-Algerian community, the bedrock of the continued use of French in Algeria.
“We want to have a more flexible approach on who we allow to enter France, to the families of binational citizens, but also to the artists, sportsmen, business leaders and politicians who contribute to creating the bilateral relationship”, he said. he said Friday in Algiers, adding that a deal on visas for Algerians would be announced in the coming weeks.
Macron also met with a group of young entrepreneurs at the French embassy in Algiers, some of whom anonymously expressed concern over the government’s drive to phase out French.
“It is reminiscent of the Arabization policies of the 1970s, which were catastrophic for Algeria. To get rid of French, we brought in Arabic teachers from Syria and Egypt, but they were often not qualified, did not know how to write Arabic well,” explains Brahim Oumansour, North Africa expert for the Parisian think tank IRIS.
“Algeria spent a lot of time trying to repair the effects of this mistake,” he said.
The tide may not yet have completely turned against the French language. Gestures signaling a reconciliation between Macron and his counterpart Tebboune were plentiful during the visit last week, with the leaders signing a declaration of cooperation to open schools, translate French and Algerian literary works and strengthen ties between universities of the two sides of the Mediterranean.
“Now that there are signs of good will on both sides, maybe the language issue will be revisited,” Oumansour mused.