French Influence in North Africa Falters Amid New Global Realities

Oussama Romdhani

Image courtesy of Ludovic Marin / AFP

At a time when French-Algerian relations were supposed to be on the mend, Algeria’s Central Bank issued, on November 1, new banknotes which bore for the first time inscriptions in English, alongside Arabic.

Politicians in Paris were not amused. They saw it as another sign that Algeria was drifting away from France’s zone of influence.

Algeria had already announced in June the introduction of English courses in primary schools. “French is a spoil of war. But English is the international language,” said President Abdelmadjid Tebboune.

Even Morocco, whose 2019 educational reform consolidated the place of French in the country’s education, decided in the summer to increase the number of English language teachers. Science classes will be taught in English at primary and middle schools. English proficiency will be required of university graduates.

Despite France’s misgivings, the demand for English language skills in the Maghreb is real. The globalized market dictates an English language proficiency that is still lacking. 

The drive to upgrade English language skills is driven not by a desire to settle scores but by a quest somewhat reminiscent of the early independence leaders’ view of French as a tool for modernization.

Maghreb officials are only going with the flow. Younger generations have acquired English on their own, from the internet and online entertainment platforms.

In a recent British Council study, 74 percent of young Moroccans said that “switching to English will benefit Morocco’s ambitions as an international business and tourism hub.”

The same phenomenon is taking place in Tunisia. No particular educational reform was introduced to enhance the place of English. Still, the language of Shakespeare is a draw for young audiences.

In all of Africa, the phenomenon is being compounded by the sparse presence of French online. Figures show French represented a mere 3.5 percent of web content. It ranked behind English, Spanish, Chinese and Arabic.

The summit of French-speaking countries, held in Djerba in November, ended up admitting that the French language is not faring well. This was in contrast to reassuring narratives previously put out by the International Organization for the Francophonie (OIF).

President Emanuel Macron said the French language, despite being spoken by 321 million people, is losing ground in North Africa. “Let’s be honest,” he said, “French is less spoken in the Maghreb today than it used to be 20 or 30 years ago.”

Seeking to pre-empt blame at home, Macron pleaded for “a reconquest” by France of its lost linguistic influence. His nostalgic overtones betrayed a desire to compete with French far-right narratives.

The call to reclaim the past is at odds with today’s complex realities marked by the diversified economic, political and military ties of the Maghreb to the rest of the world.

Furthermore, the French cannot object to the Maghrebis using English as the international language of choice when they are doing the same.

France is also realizing that across North Africa, French language proficiency has fallen through the cracks of inefficient and cash-strapped educational systems.

Linguistic usage in Tunisia, for instance, has increasingly made French an elite language while a process of “creolization” installed a hybrid form of Arabic peppered with French as the common spoken tongue. Quite a small fraction of public school graduates speaks or writes French adequately.

But French language atrophy has often been collateral damage from political tensions between Paris and Maghreb capitals.

Seeing how susceptible the French are to issues related to their cultural prestige, leaders in the region tend to push the language button when they run out of options in disputes with France.

Conflicts over business and political interests or interpretations of the colonial past can translate into decisions demoting the status of French or enhancing that of English.

Macron’s awkward statements about French-Algerian relations revived old wounds and set in motion a downward spiral in relations. 

The decision of the Algerian Central Bank is unlikely to be an exception. Other measures consecrating the new status of English as a de facto second language could see the light of day.

French culture has been no stranger to Tunisia’s identity politics. Macron’s recent incursion into Tunisia’s polarized political landscape through perceived support to President Kais Saied, despite his controversial handling of the political crisis since July 2021, could push the French factor to the fore.

During the last decade, political activists have multiplied calls for English to replace French as Tunisia’s second language. The issue has lost its urgency as the country became mired in crises. But it has hardly gone away.

Every time relations of Maghreb countries with Paris soured, political actors raised their voices to demand the substitution of French with English.

The most recent case was that of Moroccans angered by French visa restrictions. The spat added to a crisis already fueled by Rabat’s resentment of what it saw as France’s ambiguous positions on the Western Sahara.

The visa restrictions were imposed in 2021 in reprisal for Maghreb countries’ “uncooperative” attitude on repatriation of undesired or illegal migrants. Before that, France decided in 2019 to increase by ten-fold university admission fees for non-EU students. The message to young Maghrebis was that they were not welcome in France.

As it sets its eyes on sub-Saharan Africa and what it sees as the French language’s promising future there, France is likely to discover that on both sides of the Sahara it has to reckon with changing realities.

While it was busy pursuing ill-fated military campaigns, France was losing its market share to Chinese, Indian, Turkish and European competition. At the same time, internet-connected younger generations in the continent clamored for a new vision of the world.

The battle for the hearts and minds of Maghrebis and Africans might prove more complicated than Macron so far seemed to think.

Oussama Romdhani is the editor of The Arab Weekly. He previously served in the Tunisian government and as a diplomat in Washington, DC.