Last week the Secretary-General of the Istiqlal, M Hamid Chabat, said in a moment of anger that Morocco should abandon French and establish English as its second language. That prompted the cartoon (above, ‘Le Pinocchio de la Semaine’ in TelQuel) which pokes fun at his perhaps less than entirely policy-driven suggestion and adds the naughty whim that Britain be asked to colonize Morocco, “so we can learn a nice foreign language on the cheap.”
But what was it all really about?
Well, M Chabat was cross with France, a condition that afflicts many Moroccans from time to time and more now than most times. This particular, and widely shared, crossness was caused by two separate incidents of florid post-colonial disdain which have led to a froideur between the two countries, the suspension of legal co-operation agreements, much excitement in press and parliament – and a large sit-in outside the French embassy in Rabat. Reportedly, too, long telephone calls between the Heads of State
One of the two stories may not even be true, the other is really intra-Moroccan, and the two are related only by accident (or perhaps by malice). But between them they touch a very raw nerve.
The first is a comment, allegedly made by the French Ambassador to the UN. What Ambassador François Delattre is supposed to have said is that Morocco is like a “mistress with whom we sleep every night, with whom we are not particularly in love, but whom we must defend.” The remark has resurfaced through the murky report of a Spanish actor who claims to have heard the Ambassador utter the offending words in 2011. Javier Bardem has an entire golf-bag of his own axes to grind, Algerian and Polisario sympathies, and an alleged antipathy to Morocco. The Ambassador denies ever having met the Director (though perhaps, in the immortal words of Mandy Rice-Davies, “he would, wouldn’t he?” More important than its literal truth, though, is the fact that it is exactly what many Moroccans think the French think about their country. And if Moroccans really think that France regards their country as a tiresome old mistress, well past her sell-by date, the relationship does begin look a little jaded. Hamid Chabat said bitterly this week that “the French consider themselves superior to everyone,” and added for good measure that Morocco’s history is much longer than that of France, anyway. So there!
The second vignette of disdain is factual, and instead of Ambassadors and Actors, it stars Magistrates and Secret Policemen. A French Magistrate supported by seven policemen served a writ on the head of Morocco’s internal security force, the DGST, while that potentate was at a reception at the Moroccan Ambassador’s residence in Paris. The writ, instigated by Moroccan ex-prisoners living in France, alleged complicity in torture. The whole business is seen as a political and diplomatic impertinence of some grandeur.
However, it is not this opéra bouffe itself that intrigues me as a cultural analyst. I am more interested by what I think of as changing geo-cultural alignment. These are straws in a wind that is changing, veering away from the prevailing direction out of Paris, towards a much less clear, more uncertain patch of squally weather. Morocco is, as I am repeatedly told (generally in French), fed up with being treated as the chasse gardée of France. Moroccan students are learning languages other than French – Chinese, German, Spanish and English – in increasing numbers. There is a growing sense of frustration at the confinement that la francophonie represents in the international arena. In the areas where I work (primarily in education and research) there is a hunger for links beyond France. “The student who doesn’t speak English is an analphabète,” said the Minister of Higher Education recently (in French), and while this may be a little too apocalyptic, there is no doubt at all that Morocco needs, and yearns, to break out into a much more international – globalized – future than is represented by its post-colonial past. Current debates not only on foreign languages, but on Arabic, Tamazight and darija in education suggest that this is part of a larger tension over identity as Morocco enters a new phase of its history.
I draw no conclusions from all this, other than that the cards have been thrown in the air, and we shall see in the next few years how they will fall. But as a Moroccan courtier said to me not so long ago, “The post-colonial era is coming to an end – we are entering the post-post-colonial era.” Culture is the last proxy for power, and zones of cultural influence are shadows of empire. Morocco is now embracing a much more varied cultural and linguistic future in which no one culture has a dominant role. It is a healthy development, and a positive one, wherever the cards fall.