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Language Ideologies Create Conflict in Morocco

North African country’s parliament approves draft law to teach topics in French despite controversy even within ruling party

Morocco has found itself in the midst of a national quarrel over the use of French after its House of Representatives approved the first reading of a draft law that authorizes the teaching of scientific and technical subjects in a language once spurned as a sign of colonial rule.

The draft law, which has caused a sharp dispute within the moderate-Islamic ruling Justice and Development Party, was passed following a debate that lasted for hours. Voting in favor were 241 lawmakers – including some from the Justice and Development Party – while four legislators opposed it and 21 abstained.

Many in the ruling party and its former ally, the Independence Party, insist on maintaining Arabic and Amazigh, a language of the indigenous North African Berber people, as the sole official languages of the country, including in schools. Most of Morocco’s other political parties, though, are showing a willingness and even desire for the teaching of some scientific and technical topics in French, as that is often the lingua franca in certain professional and even governmental circles.

Ahmed al-Bouz, a Moroccan analyst who teaches political science at the University of Muhammad al-Khamis in Rabat, explained to The Media Line that the legislation comes as part of educational reforms stemming from international studies ranking Morocco at the bottom of the list in education.

“The data indicates that education in Morocco suffers from a crisis, where all of the previous reforms that were implemented to change that didn’t work,” Bouz said. “There is clearly a crisis, and no one in the country can deny it. However, the discussion remains around what kind of reform is needed to fix the issue.”

He added that Morocco had been “floundering” between different types of reforms for the past 15 years, with no results. To that end, he said the government was trying to enhance educational programs as well as discuss the option of providing free education. Now, discussion over which should be the primary language of instruction has provoked an ideologically charged debate.

“Some see that the scientific topics should be taught in French [because they say] it’s the language of science, although others consider [this language to be] English,” Bouz said.

He also pointed out that in line with the Arab trend toward nationalism, many in Morocco believe that all topics should be taught only in Arabic, and only occasionally in English for other topics.

But more than a discussion about scientific language or the language of instruction, the issue of French in Morocco is one of national identity.

Morocco, along with Algeria and Tunisia, has a history of French colonization, with France occupying Algeria in 1830, and Tunisia becoming a French protectorate in 1881. Morocco was able to maintain an unsteady independence under the control of local sultans until 1912, when the sultan was forced to sign the Treaty of Fès, dividing Morocco into French and Spanish protectorates.

In 1956, Morocco gained independence from France, and shortly afterward regained most of the territories under Spanish control.

“The ruling party in Morocco is religious and defends the Arabic and Islamic identity, but became embroiled in the new project of teaching scientific subjects in French,” Bouz continued, adding that the Justice and Development Party was now in crisis due to the issue.

Indeed, debate over the legislation was boycotted by some party deputies loyal to former prime minister Abdelilah Benkirane, who failed to persuade others to come out against it. The party eventually decided to vote in favor of the bill as a whole, although there were differences over the specific languages to be available for teaching.

Ismael Mi’raf, an Algerian writer specializing in political science, told The Media Line that the new bill was purely political, as Rabat has been aiming to cozy up to France.

“Paris, which aspires to remain the key player in North Africa, feels that the heritage of its language and civilization is forgotten. The king of Morocco knows about that,” Mi’raf said, stressing that the former French colony was now reintroducing itself as a primary partner in protecting French heritage.

To back up his argument, he pointed out that English, not French, is the language of science.

“French people themselves teach in English in some of their universities,” Mi’raf stated. “The new law is only to gain [the approval] of the French people.”

Ayman Hirbawi, a Tunisian political analyst for various media outlets, maintains that in general, introducing a new language in addition to a country’s official language usually has to do with educational enrichment, stressing to The Media Line that in Morocco, many look unfavorably on French for historical reasons.

“The French language is connected with occupation; therefore, the elites in Morocco are against it,” Hirbawi said, noting that a lot of people in Rabat still see it solely as the language of the colonizer.

He pointed out that in Tunisia, where the primary teaching language is French, its usage occasionally is cause for dispute, but “because of the internal situation in Tunisia after the [2011] revolution, the language issue isn’t a priority now,” he said, although he believes that under different circumstances, some Tunisians would widely argue for the removal of the language of “their occupier.”

He noted that in Morocco the general climate allows for such priorities to be discussed.

“In Rabat, there are a lot of movements to repair and fix the educational sector, which allows people to speak their minds regarding the language used,” he said.