French in Algeria; the spoils of war?

The great Algerian author, Kateb Yacine, once famously labelled the French language the Algerian “spoils of war”. He argued that to absorb the French language – that is the language of 130 years of colonial rule – was not to collude with colonial powers. In 1966 he wrote that, “using French does not mean that one is an agent of a foreign power, and I write in French to say to the French that I am not French“. In the last five years, Algeria has seen an increasing presence of the French language, in everything from newspapers and advertisements to football commentary on the radio, and it seems that Yacine’s acceptance of the language (distinct from any political acceptance) is more widespread than ever.

Though it is not an official language in Algeria, French is not seen as a foreign language in the country. Ironically, whilst it was spoken by only a handful of the most privileged Algerians throughout the long period of French colonial rule, it seems that the language is now developing after the country’s independence from France. Algeria is only an observing member of the International Francophone Organisation, but a study from 2008 has revealed that even four years ago a third of Algerians were able to read, write and speak in French, and that figure is only increasing.

In the past there has certainly been conflict over the use of French compared to the use of Arabic, particularly in universities in the 70s and 80s. One journalist, Salim Rabia, called the conflict between the two camps a “homeric battle”, with those who argued for teaching in Arabic only calling their opponents traitors to the country. But despite this, French has still resurfaced as an important language in Algeria.

Private companies now hold job interviews in French, with the first question often being “can you speak this language fluently?”. Perhaps with this in mind, young people in particular have turned increasingly to French language courses, and at the French Institute of Alger, the number of inscriptions has more than doubled, from 4,571 in 2008 to 11,065 this year.

In 2008, the journalist Zineb Kobbi, wrote an article (in Arabic) which described how the violence of French soldiers towards his mother and sister during the war of independence had tetanised him against that “foreign” language. He explained how he had once heard on the French radio the story of a girl from the French Resistance during the Second World War who could no longer bear to hear German, as it reminded her of many sombre hours of fear and uncertainty. Kobbi concluded that he understood exactly how she felt. But last week, El Watan newspaper ran an article on the French language which underlined the growing separation in the mind of many Algerians of French from a perception of the “language of the coloniser”. It is not true for all Algerians, but certainly for some French is not a remnant of an oppressive regime, but is something to be reclaimed and reused anew, as the celebrated spoils of war.

Sources include: Le Monde

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