France's colonial legacy
Algerians turn away from French

An increasing number of government ministries in Algeria are announcing they will abandon French in future. They may be reacting to the mood among the population, but the move is also deliberate. By Dunja Ramadan

Algeria's minister of culture, Wafaa Chaalal, is on TV, struggling for words. The conversation is in Arabic – and it is no secret that Algerians will often switch to French, or at least integrate so much French vocabulary that it quickly overlaps the Arabic. The Egyptian presenter asks the minister about the strong influence of French in her home country. With a friendly smile, she continues that she knows many Algerians who speak more French than Arabic.

The minister attributes this to the strong French influence in education. Then she adds: "We think in French and speak Arabic. That's why some words don't come to us so quickly." The presenter doesn't quite understand, and tries to correct her: "You think in Arabic and speak in French." No, the other way round, says the minister of culture. The presenter seems hard pressed to believe her. Her next question, on how French thinking differs from Arab thinking, has to be dropped. The issue is too sensitive for Chalaal.

The interview triggered a flood of comments on social media. Many Algerians said that Chaalal was only speaking on behalf of the francophone elite, who share out the plum government posts between each other, rather than for the Algerian people, who speak Arabic. One comment asserted that "when they want to kill the identity of a people, they first kill the language"; another wrote that "their words are true, all the officials are frenchified; but we don't accept the truth, we live like ostriches burying our heads in the sand."

Increasingly the prevailing mood among the population is being recognised by politicians: in recent months, several ministries have banned French – the language of the former colonial power – from official correspondence. Last October, the ministry of youth and sports, the ministry of vocational training and the ministry of labour, employment and social security all made Arabic compulsory instead. At the beginning of April, the ministry of culture, now headed by Soraya Mouloudji, followed suit. Such developments also need to be seen in the context of the diplomatic spat between Algiers and Paris last autumn. At least, officially.

French President Emmanuel Macron during his speech to mark the 60th anniversary of the ceasefire in the Algerian war. (photo: Gonzalo Fuentes/AP Photo/picture alliance)
Diplomatic crisis between France and Algeria: last October the former French colony was incensed by statements attributed to the occupant of the Elysee Palace by French daily "Le Monde". President Macron referred to a new, "official" Algerian version of history following the country's independence that was characterised by a "discourse of hatred" towards France. The government in Algiers recalled its ambassador Mohamed Antar-Daoud to Algiers for "consultations". Algeria forbade "any interference" in its internal affairs was the official comment. Macron's "unacknowledged" remarks were "irresponsible"

Emmanuel Macron asked whether Algeria had ever been a nation before colonial times

At the time, French President Emmanuel Macron's statements in Le Monde caused a diplomatic crisis between the two states. Macron accused Algeria's "political-military system" of still using colonialism to excuse its own failures. "Since 1962, the Algerian nation has been feeding off a memory that says France is the problem," Macron was quoted as saying in the French newspaper. Moreover – and this caused an outcry in Algiers – he questioned whether Algeria had ever been a nation before the colonial era.

French troops occupied Algeria as early as 1830 and declared the North African country a French province. A massacre of tens of thousands of Algerians in Setif committed by French colonial troops in May 1945 led to the strengthening of the Algerian independence movement. In 1954, under the leadership of the FLN (Front de Liberation Nationale), the so-called Algerian War against the French colonial power began, which culminated in the country's independence in 1962. The struggle for liberation was brutally suppressed by French troops and hundreds of thousands of Algerians were killed.

Consequently, the government in Algiers recalled its ambassador last autumn and stopped overflight rights for French military jets over the Sahel. Macron let it be known shortly afterwards – through an advisor – that he regretted the "polemic" and the "misunderstandings". At the beginning of December last year, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian travelled to Algeria. After three months, the diplomatic crisis was over. But not a single official representative of the Algerian government took part in the commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the ceasefire in the Algerian war held at the end of March. Macron called for further reconciliation between France and the former French colony.

The Algerian delegation at Evian on 18 March 1962, where the ceasefire agreement was signed (photo: London Express/dpa/picture-alliance)
Necessary reappraisal of the painful past: on the 60th anniversary of the ceasefire in the Algerian war, Emmanuel Macron called for further reconciliation between France and Algeria. He said that past injustices must be acknowledged. Former combatants of the opposing sides were also present at the commemoration ceremony with 200 guests. Macron emphasised that he wanted to present the different perspectives on the war and thus make it possible to move ahead with the process of coming to terms with the past. "There will inevitably still be moments of rancour, there will still be feelings of injustice, but we will manage." Yet not a single official representative of the Algerian government attended the commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the ceasefire in the Algerian war held at the end of March

But Macron's controversial statements in Algiers have not been forgotten, says Algerian political scientist Zine Labidine Ghebouli. The 26-year-old researches Euro-Mediterranean relations at the University of Glasgow. "Macron's remarks have fuelled an ancient linguistic and socio-cultural rivalry and led to increased post-colonial scepticism," he says. But he describes the new culture minister's move primarily as a "traditional battle of her conservative camp against the Francophone cultural elite" and a "PR strategy to capitalise on Macron's remarks to gain popularity". Algeria is undergoing profound social change, after which, Labidine believes, French people will no longer enjoy the same privileges and elite status.

Younger people are turning away from the French language

Anti-French sentiment has been increasing in the country over the past three years, Labidine says. It is also linked, he says, to the Hirak protest movement, which is calling for a complete reorganisation of the political system that has existed in Algeria since independence. Over the past three years, the movement has been able to mobilise hundreds of thousands of demonstrators – to first topple long-term president Abdelaziz Bouteflika and then to fight against the political network of the military, secret services and industrial magnates still in power today.

President Abdelmadjid Tebboune, elected at the end of 2019, is seen by many Algerians as a supporter of the old system. Anti-French slogans and placards could be heard and seen repeatedly during the demonstrations – slogans such as "Wherever there is France, destruction comes" or "Macron, go, you are not welcome in the land of martyrs".

Protests against the government in Algiers, 21.02.2020 (photo: Reuters)
Alienation from the language of domination: the young generation in particular is increasingly distancing itself from French. Almost two-thirds of Algeria's population is under 35 years old. Although there are considerable differences according to region and class, many young Algerians today feel less confident using the French language than their parents or grandparents. This alienation is also linked to the Hirak protest movement, which for two years has been calling for a complete reorganisation of the political system that has existed in Algeria since independence. Anti-French slogans and posters have been repeatedly heard and seen during the demonstrations

During the protests, the demonstrators repeatedly drew parallels between their demands and the anti-colonial struggle, says Andrew Farrand. The author of "The Algerian Dream: Youth and the Quest for Dignity", published in 2021, adds that the young generation, in particular, is increasingly distancing itself from the French language. Almost two-thirds of Algeria's population is under 35. Farrand lived in Algeria from 2013 to 2020 to see what makes "the next generation in the sleeping giant of North Africa" tick, as he writes in his book. Algeria is the largest country in Africa by area. Although there are significant differences according to region and class, Farrand says, many young Algerians today feel less confident using French than their parents or grandparents.

Algerian entrepreneurs often complain that they cannot find young employees who can write or speak French properly, Farrand tells us. In addition, "Young people are growing up in an online world. English has taken on a new meaning, and French is really feeling the heat for the first time." This trend is also evident in other areas. When the leading French-language newspaper Liberte ceased publication last week after thirty years, only a small Francophone minority mourned its loss.

The only young Algerians exempted from this development are those flirting with the idea of emigrating to France. Despite the fact that an increasing number are aware that life can be difficult for Algerian migrants in France. Especially with the rise of the far-right. Although Marine Le Pen yet again proved unsuccessful at the ballot box, she garnered more popular support than ever before.

Dunja Ramadan

© Suddeutsche Zeitung/ 2022

More on this topic