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Repairing Colonial Wounds Questionable as Algeria Pivots from French to English

posted on: Sep 7, 2022

French President Emmanuel Macron and Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune shake hands during press conference in Algiers. Source: Ludovic Marin (AFP)

By: Norah Soufraji / Arab America Contributing Writer

Too Little, Too Late

French President Macron’s recent overtures during a diplomatic visit to Algeria may prove too little, too late for rehabilitating perceptions of France. The importance of the French language and culture has diminished greatly in Algeria over several decades. This began swiftly during the Algerian war of independence and continued into a period of somewhat mismanaged Arabization in the 1970s. As President Macron seeks to make the case for turning the page on 132 years of colonization, Algerians express disinterest in French language and culture. Algerian President Tebboune announced schools will now shift priority focus to teaching English rather than French, beginning this year. 

A Complicated History

At the presidential palace in Algiers, a sign of changing times could be found on President Macron’s lectern. Macron along with his Algerian counterpart Abdelmadjid Tebboune gave a press conference behind a placard labeled “Presidency of the Republic” rather than “Présidence de la République” , a subtle but unprecedented move away from remnants of francophone popular culture typical in countries formerly under French rule.  

France appears to be seeking a restructuring of its foreign policy agenda, particularly in Africa. With regards to Algeria, there is a growing demand for gas from North Africa given the increased volatility in Europe following the Russia-Ukraine war.

As France’s global sphere of influence has declined, Macron has made a point to reestablish historical ties to former colonial states. 

President Macron referred to the relationship between the two nations stating:

“We have a complex, painful common past. And it has at times prevented us from looking at the future,” 

In 2017, Macron referred to French actions in Algeria as “a crime against humanity”. French sources set casualties at the range of 300,000 – 500,000 while Algerian sources claim as many as 1,500,000- 5,000,000. France’s 132 year rule in Algeria from 1830- 1962 was marked by bloody oppression, economic mismanagement, as well as widespread poverty and illiteracy. France’s actions have been documented in detail by Algerian and French sources alike with numerous photographs and eyewitness accounts. 

Despite the French government vaguely acknowledging the country’s complicated history in Algeria, they have yet to fully address the scale of atrocities, rapes, and torture committed against the Algerian people. 

France has also made no mention of the 17 nuclear detonation tests carried out in Algeria which experts state led to the deaths of 42,000 people while also resulting in higher rates of cancer, mutations, and disfiguration in the country. 

Algerian women played a vital role in fight for independence. Cover Issue photograph from “Les Cahiers du Féminisme” (French feminist review) dedicated to Algeria

Attempts to Heal a Painful Past

Fast forward to today, Macron’s latest visit to Algeria was an effort to heal from a violent colonial past and to create a partnership moving forward into the future. However, the question remains of whether or not France, specifically the French language and culture in particular, has any relevant future in Algeria.

French foreign policy and influence has generally put French language and culture at the forefront as opposed to the British model which did not seek full linguistic and cultural assimilation. The French colonial model considered the colonized as a part of France. This is in spite of the fact that the people they ruled were considered second or even third class citizens. 

France’s cultural and linguistic hegemony lingered in former colonies in Africa as well as the Middle East even after these nations achieved independence. However, in recent decades the preeminence of the French language and culture has been on a sharp decline. 

Last year, Macron received backlash when he asserted that Algeria did not have a national identity before French rule. He also claimed that Algeria’s leaders sought to sow hatred of France by rewriting history. It appears that despite efforts to create mutual cultural, political, and economic cooperation during his latest visit, Macron’s approach to Algeria fundamentally still lacks accountability. 

During the latest joint press conference Macron diverted attention from the legacy of colonization by suggesting African and Algerian young people were being bombarded by a campaign to demonize France.

“There is immense manipulation,” he said. Macron continued by diverting blame to other nations who have a vested political and economic interests in Algeria.

 “Many political Islam activists have an enemy: France. Many of the networks that are covertly pushed – … by Turkey… by Russia… by China – have an enemy: France.” he told reporters. 

Algerians say Au Revoir to French

In July, President Tebboune announced that beginning this year, English would be taught at the primary school level, a move signaling a gradual phasing out of French early language development. 

“French is a spoil of war, but English is an international language,” said Tebboune. 

These sentiments are widely echoed by Algerians at large, especially the youth. For decades French has been essential for professional job seekers in Algeria. However, young people express a desire to learn English which is seen as neutral and essential in today’s globalized world. 

There has also been a notable cultural shift in Algeria. Interest in French film and music has lessened or in some cases been replaced by American and English language media. Arabization campaigns of the 1970s and onward sought to shift linguistic focus from French to Modern Standard Arabic, however, this has been only moderately successful. Several government bodies have shifted from French to Arabic and Tamazight (the language of the Amazigh minority), in their official correspondence, with the French language in turn being banned.

French is now seen as a vestige of the colonial past. Modern Standard Arabic is mainly reserved for news and official capacities, proving difficult to resonate as local dialects of Arabic such as Darija and Hassaniya are spoken in everyday life. 

Although painful memories of France’s colonization may no longer be at the forefront in the minds of Algeria’s next generation, it is clear that France and President Macron’s attempts to build on relations may be met with lukewarm reception and disinterest.

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