English-speaking North Africa?

September 2016

Changes in the outlook of traditionally French-speaking North Africa after the Arab Spring suggest an historic opportunity to take advantage of increasing demand for English - and with it to expand British engagement and influence - in a region of major strategic importance. British Council North Africa expert Martin Rose argues that the UK should seize this opportunity, which may have significant implications for the UK’s future security and prosperity. 

Bavures and Shibboleths

Before 2011, ‘the Arab Spring’ was a hand-flip with which a gymnast entered the floor-mat. All of a sudden, that year, its meaning changed utterly. Much the same thing has happened with North Africa itself. Until 2011 we really didn’t think very much about it. North Africa was a French preserve, and French interests reigned supreme. At Oxford in the 80s, ‘Middle East Studies’ didn’t even really include the Maghreb: west of Libya you might as well have been entering another, ill-lit, continent. In part this is of course a matter of the British ineptitude with foreign languages; and of the not unrelated diffidence that often lurks under the bluster when a British person is confronted with French culture. 

The result is that the Maghreb, the traditionally French-speaking North Africa of Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco, is a bit of a blank on the British mental map. This is a mistake, and we need to understand much more clearly what it is that makes it a cultural frontier, dense with possibilities and facing massive change. Indeed, it is perhaps the most important cultural tipping-point in the ‘European neighbourhood’ and we ignore it very much to our cost. The Maghreb is crucial to Europe’s future, very open to the cultural vectors of English, and much too important to ignore.

The Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions of 2011/12 put North Africa firmly on the map and the Libyan revolution added greater urgency. The events of the last half-decade have kept our eyes – or at least one of them – on North Africa. But this has all too often been a purely security-led concern, an uncomfortable awareness that it is a region of huge inequalities and youth frustrations that breed extremism, Making of the Maghreb a problem rather than an opportunity would be a mistake.

The old colonial power, France, is much more focused. Their Embassy in Rabat is one of the largest French Embassies in the world. The annual expenditure by France on cultural centres is one of its highest in the world. There are 39 French government-owned educational institutions, mainly lycées, at which a substantial minority of students sit the French, rather than the Moroccan, Baccalaureate. A large French government scholarship programme takes the children of the Moroccan, Tunisian and Algerian elites to France for higher education. The French president is a regular guest of the King of Morocco, as are his predecessors. Why? This is all about the solipsistic worry that la francophonie is fragile and that Morocco is the jewel in its crown. It could be seen as a systematic and deft – but increasingly anxious - post-colonial cultural imperialism which still bears very tangible fruit. And what is true of Morocco is sometimes, to different extents, true in the contexts of Tunisia and Algeria. 

There is an economic force taking shape, its potential still unrealised, with a privileged position as regards the EU, a large European diaspora and all to play for

North Africa is fractured by political disputes, of which the tension between Morocco and Algeria, whose porous border has been closed since 1992, is only the most visible. The formation of a real North African economic zone would increase collective GDP enormously. Meanwhile Morocco is assiduously rebuilding through commerce its own historic dominance of inner West Africa –francophone Mali, Mauritania, Senegal and the Sahara. There is an economic force taking shape, its potential still unrealised, with a privileged position as regards the EU, a large European diaspora and all to play for. Morocco especially offers free-zones, call-centres, large-scale solar power production, and sources of agricultural and light industrial products within a few miles – indeed in the Spanish presidencies within a few metres – of Europe. French policy in North Africa centres on retaining it within a francosphère, and hence the relentless attention paid to it.

But the relationship, like most post-imperial relationships, is not untroubled. A series of surprisingly inept ‘bavures,’ French offences to Moroccan pride, has in recent years offered repeated instances of symbolic brittleness. The much-reported remark by a French diplomat that Morocco is an old mistress with whom one still sleeps every night but do not particularly love, though feel obliged to stick up for, caused sit-ins outside the French Embassy in Rabat a couple of years ago.  The elites of the three countries are deeply immersed in France’s universities and Grandes Ecoles; in Morocco the system of French government lycées educates the children of the elite outside the state education system and sends its pupils to France for Higher Education and the Paris job-fairs at which senior jobs in Casablanca are often recruited. Maroc Hebdo, a glossy magazine, once put it succinctly: “The Moroccan elite only recruits amongst the graduates of French grandes écoles.” French is the language of commerce, and the academy, of science and culture. 

English as neural bypass and hotlink to the globalised world

English is a language for everyone, of every social background … French is considered the language of the élite

But this is changing very fast. Partly crystallised by the Arab Spring, partly by generational change, there is increasing resistance to French, from the young, the savvy and from anyone whose future depends on international networking. Just as a growing proportion of French postgraduate courses are taught in English (Geneviève Fioroso, Minister of Education in 2014, commented on France’s failure to recruit Indian students, through obstinacy against teaching in English: nous sommes ridicules). The elite across the Maghreb increasingly want their children to study in the States because they think that is the future. Above all, English provides two things: employability and social mobility. In an internationalised world, whether in London, Washington, Lagos or Brussels, English is vital to success. British Council research in 2012 documented a wage premium for English-speakers on the domestic labour market – a premium that anticipates demand. And on the mobility side, English offers an escape from what some might see as the stultifying stratification of French-speaking society. As one small-town language school proprietor told the BBC, accounting for rocketing demand: “English is a language for everyone, of every social background … French is considered the language of the élite.”

There are other straws in the wind. The Minister of Higher Education in Morocco has made clear that English is fast becoming a prerequisite of doctoral study and that “a student who does not know English must consider himself illiterate.” “English,” he said on another occasion, “is the language for scientific research: French is no longer useful.”

In Moroccan schools, where English is introduced several years after French, there is a move towards foreign language versions of the Moroccan BAC. The French-Moroccan BAC, hugely funded, has proved unpopular with parents and with politicians: the leader of the Istiqlal, the historical party of the independence struggle, said cholerically (and no doubt a little rhetorically) in 2014 that it was high time to replace French with English. An English BAC, on the other hand, much smaller and much less well funded, seems to be prospering quietly and deserves much support: held back for now by the paucity of opportunities to study in English at university, it is a linguistic change waiting with impatience to break out of its narrow confines.

So it’s time for the UK to tune in to Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria. There are great opportunities, with language and culture at the cutting edge, to help shape the future of this vital tier of European neighbours. This is not simply a commercial ambition, though taken together, currently francophone North Africa is an interesting market of some 80 million people. Security presents great challenges - but these must be faced anyway, and careful investment in education, language and the kind of enterprise and opportunity that will diminish youth alienation will pay long-term dividends.

The internationalisation of the region, long held back by its confinement in a shrinking francophonie, will represent a geo-strategic wave of real importance. We need to ride it, not to see it pass by bearing other boats.


Martin Rose, Senior MENA Consultant, British Council

Co-Author of 'The Challenge of North Africa'