Algeria’s Switch to English Signals Erosion of France’s Influence – POLITICO

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ALGIER – In the world of diplomacy, few details matter more than language. And few languages ​​carry the diplomatic and cultural weight that French has long boasted.

So when last week at Emmanuel Macron’s lectern in the Algerian presidential palace it said in French “Presidency of the Republic” instead of “Présidence de la République” (after all, Algeria was part of the French colonial empire for well over a century). , diplomats and casual observers in Paris took note.

“I wasn’t surprised, but I was shocked [Algeria] would do something like that during a French President’s visit,” said France’s former ambassador to Algeria, Xavier Driencourt.

“It’s very conscious. It’s a message for France, but also a way to say to 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 government’s latest signal to phase out French as one of the working languages ​​of Algerian officials. Algerian President in July announced Abdelmadjid Tebboune that English will be taught in primary schools from this year, which has been presented as the gradual phasing out of French. “French is spoils of war, but English is an international language,” Tebboune said.

The use of French, particularly in public administration, business and universities, is part of a complicated legacy from the colonial era that ended in 1962 after a brutal eight-year war of independence. France is now in a soft power struggle to maintain its influence in Algeria while its former colony relocates to replace English with French 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 the age of nine and is spoken by a third of Algerians. English is only taught in secondary schools from the age of 14. If the Algerian government has its way, the status of the two languages ​​will be reversed, with English teaching replacing French from primary school.

With nearly 15 million French speakers International organization for the French language, Algeria is the third largest French-speaking country in the world after France and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. For France, the loss of Algeria would be a major dent in its sphere of influence, which is a constant concern of French politicians.

“If France doesn’t pull itself together, if it doesn’t stop replacing French with English, it will lose its influence, it will lose people capable of spreading its culture and defending its interests. If nothing changes, the French sphere of influence will disappear,” said Dr. Ryadh Ghessil, lecturer in French at the University of Bourmèdes, east of Algiers.

But while turning away from French is seen by some as a way to exorcise the Mediterranean nation’s colonial past, many Algerian-speaking French speakers are wary of a decision they say is politically motivated.

“The government is trying to encourage the use of Arabic, but it’s also encouraging English because it’s considered more culturally neutral in Algeria,” he said.

“They do it because behind every language there is a culture and the French language produces people who are critical, who have read Camus and who are a problem for those in power,” he said, referring to French writer and resistance fighter Albert Camus. who was born in Algeria.

speak to the world

Amid the hustle and bustle of downtown Algiers, Algerians take a moment during their lunch break to sit in the sun or catch up with friends before heading back to work or school. Outside of Mustapha University Hospital, opinion on the language is unanimous: most would prefer to learn English as a second language rather than French, given the choice.

“English is an international language, it’s more useful than French when traveling,” says management student Souhali Zouaoui.

“If you want to work in Algeria, you need French, but if you want to get a job in Europe, Canada or the United States, you want English,” she added.

“Young people prefer to speak English because everyone does it. French is only spoken in a handful of countries,” reiterated 23-year-old male nurse Abdelrahim Sakraoui, who wore fake Yves Saint Laurent sunglasses and a hipster beard.

“Colonial history also prevents us from learning French,” he added.

In this corner of Algeria, France’s soft power — a heavily subsidized cultural industry and accessible state television channels — doesn’t seem to suffuse the US’s global reach, with locals citing American singers and films as their favourites.

And the desires of younger globalized generations seem to coincide with a historic desire by nationalists in Algeria to phase out the use of French in official service, dating back to the early days of independence.

“This is not a new demand and is seen as a way to emancipate oneself from old colonial ties,” says Amar Mohand-Amer, a historian at a research center in the Algerian city of Oran.

“It’s cathartic, we want to break free from the French language,” he said.

And according to Mohand-Amer, the language problem also crops up whenever Franco-Algerian relations run into difficulties – like last year.

Macron’s visit to Algeria last week was aimed at restoring ties after the French president insulted the Algerian regime by accusing it of exploiting the colonial past.

Last year, the French president accused the Algerian government of being “a politico-military system” that “incites hatred of France” and “capitalizes on the colonial past”. In response, Algeria recalled its ambassador for three months.

French influence supported

Algeria’s public switch to English, the signing of a multibillion-euro gas deal with Italy in July, and Algeria’s decision to hold joint military exercises with Russia in November were all signs that were picked up on in Paris and seen by some as a threat to its dwindling influence Region. Macron’s visit to Algeria also came shortly after visits to French-speaking Cameroon and Benin amid France’s military withdrawal from the Sahel.

Many observers note that in the years following the independence of former French colonies in Africa, France struggled to maintain its influence in what was once called “la Françafrique”.

While the number of French speakers in Africa is expected to increase, the proportion of people who speak French in Africa is expected to stagnate, according to a report by the International organization for the French language.

During his visit, Macron paid particular attention to public support for the Franco-Algerian community, the basis for the continued use of French in Algeria.

“We would like to have a more flexible approach to who we allow to enter France, to the families of binational citizens, but also to artists, athletes, business leaders and politicians who help create the bilateral ties,” he said in Algiers on Friday, adding that an agreement on visas for Algerians will be announced in the coming weeks.

Macron also met a group of young entrepreneurs at the French embassy in Algiers, some of whom anonymously expressed concern about the government’s desire to phase out French.

“It’s reminiscent of the Arabization policy of the 1970s, which was catastrophic for Algeria. To get rid of French, Arabic teachers were brought in from Syria and Egypt, but they were often unqualified and couldn’t write in Arabic properly,” says Brahim Oumansour, North Africa expert at the Paris think tank IRIS.

“Algeria has long tried to remedy the effects of this error,” he said.

The tide may not have completely turned against the French language. During last week’s visit, there were numerous gestures signaling a reconciliation between Macron and his counterpart Tebboune. The leaders signed a declaration of cooperation to open schools, translate French and Algerian literary works and strengthen ties between universities on both sides of the Mediterranean.

“Now that there are signs of goodwill on both sides, the language issue might come up again,” Oumansour mused.

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