La trahison des clercs

Last week saw an extraordinary press headline: Morocco’s Minister of Education: French is No Longer Valid, English is the Solution. Lahcen Daoudi proposes, in this interview, a number of radical changes to higher education policy. The Ministry, says Dr Daoudi, is to make English proficiency a condition for obtaining a doctorate. “We master neither Arabic nor French … because most scientific references are in English.” He goes on, “English is the world language for scientific research,” concluding that “French is no longer useful.” What’s more, this seems to have implications for undergraduates: “Students who want to have access to science departments at Moroccan universities must be proficient in English.” Not pausing for breath, he swipes at the current bête noire of the PJD with the words “the French baccalaureate is a dubious solution.”

This is a fascinating statement, not simply because it is true (it is self-evident), but because it has been made at all. French has been the dominant foreign language in Morocco since the Protectorate – and Dr Daoudi is a perfect French-speaker. French is the language of the élite, of the Mission; it is the language of university education in the sciences – the senior stream of the universities. So entrenched is it there that although the schools education system was Arabised by the late 1980s, school-leavers from the public schools wishing to study maths or science still have to make the incredibly demanding jump to studying in French for their degrees, while those educated privately or at the Mission cope easily enough with the same transition. Charis Bouthieri quotes a Moroccan teacher as saying that French “is [the pupils’] passport to the grandes écoles … we don’t hide it from them – the key to success is math and French.” This is what is changing.

Morocco is the jewel in the crown of la Francophonie, with one of the largest French Embassies, and one of the largest French cultural budgets, in the world. The country has 13 French cultural institutes of various kinds (Instituts, antennes and Alliances) and the Mission maintains some 30 schools (between AEFE and OSUI):  Le réseau des établissements scolaires d’enseignement français au Maroc est sans conteste le plus dense au monde. Il scolarise à cette rentrée 31 500 élèves, dont plus de 60 % sont marocains, dans des établissements couvrant les principales villes du Maroc à tous les niveaux d’enseignement. 

So Dr Daoudi is saying something very radical, proposing a reversal of a century of cultural tutelage and education, of a tight affiliation to France in language and culture which underpins the existing constellation of power. As one courtier said to me recently in another context, “The post-colonial period is over. We are entering the post-post-colonial period.” It is rather a bumpy ride.

The last few weeks have seen what I think is probably the beginning of a sea-change in Morocco’s cultural alignment. The Delattre remark (“Morocco is like a tired old mistress …”) and the Hammouchi Affair in Paris crystallized (rightly or wrongly) for many Moroccans the sense that Morocco is taken for granted, undervalued and under-respected. Demonstrators sat-in outside the French Embassy, legal co-operation was suspended. Hamid Chabat commented splenetically that it is time to replace French with English.

This could have been a storm in a teacup, but was followed almost immediately by an attack on the French-language options in the Moroccan baccalaureate that were introduced last September and signed into an intergovernmental accord between the two ministers this February.  (These are a perfectly logical attempt to ease the transition from the scientific bac in the public schools to university study in French.) The attack came from the PJD, which turned out firmly against this further entrenchment of French in the Moroccan public education system, calling it “une grave violation de la souveraineté nationale,” and “une humiliation de la langue Arabe.” The PJD, the coalition government’s senior partner, has apparently sworn to see the bac français off the field, using all possible means including parliamentary and trade union action, the latter through the UNMT, “son bras syndical.”

I watch all this as a slightly incredulous observer. It is sad that this great – and in my view inevitable – geocultural tipping-point is being reached in an apparently unplanned, unexpected way. The surprise is not that it is happening, but that it is happening so much faster than anyone could have expected. Clearly Dr Daoudi is right about English as the international language of science, of the communauté des savants. I am increasingly struck, and decreasingly surprised, by Moroccan ministries and state organizations telling me that they don’t want academic seminars and conferences translated into French, because (as the head of a major research organization said to me recently, in French), “We have got to make Moroccan researchers speak English.”

I am more surprised by the take-up of places at British universities by Moroccan students: until last year I was scarcely aware of serious recruitment. This year the swallows have made a summer – we have seen half a dozen major universities on recruiting missions, and the figures are beginning to creep upwards. Given the cost, this is very significant. Most of the students are coming from the Lycées de la Mission Française, and are students who would have progressed without reflection to French HE institutions in a previous generation. There, though, they would today find a growing number of their courses taught in English – some 25% at the grandes ecoles. For a small but fast-growing number, the anglophone universities of the USA, Britain and Canada seem to be an attractive alternative. As one very senior Moroccan said to me recently (in exquisite French), “I’m too old a dog to learn new tricks – but my children are at university in the States because without English they aren’t going anywhere.”

To this I should add the thickening of research relationships. These are still at a relatively early stage of development, but given the Minister’s remarks seem likely to thicken up a good deal. Already in the last twelve months the British Council has run three research workshops with Cambridge University and the Moroccan-British Society (on Moroccan History 1945-56; Moroccan Popular Culture; and the relationship between Economic Reform and Job Creation); and another four postdoctoral research workshops with the CNRST on Jurassic Environments, Social Policy, Nutrition and Big Data. These have laid the foundations of actual and potential collaboration between Moroccan institutions and not only Cambridge and SOAS, but also Imperial, Southampton, Bath and the Natural History Museum. Cambridge and Imperial (at 3rd and 5th in the QS World Rankings, or 7th and 10th in the THES) are major institutions for partnership with Morocco.

There are other straws in the wind, but the overall story is a simple one. The then French Minister of Education Geneviève Fioraso said last year that the English language needs much greater currency in French Higher Education, noting that in recruiting only 3,000 Indian students, “nous sommes ridicules.” The understanding is as clear in France as it is becoming in Morocco that English is the international language of scholarship. This is particularly true in the sciences, but I have recently had two distinguished Moroccan anthropologists tell me quite separately that they feel beached by the fact that most important publishing in their field is in English, and translation into French even of the most important publications can take five or ten years.

Of course at a national level such decisions are not purely pragmatic. There is much sentiment and much tenderness over identity involved (as has been very clear in the parallel polemic over darija and fus7a in elementary education in Morocco).  French, and Mission education, have been markers of the élite for many decades and closely guarded gateways. Moha Hajar of FTSE Errachidia has done interesting statistical analysis on the make-up of graduating classes from the Lyceés de la Mission, concluding that the 500 ‘top’ families of the Kingdom make up 45.19% of graduations since 1956; the top 200 families, 33.75%; the top 50, 21.36%, and the top ten families 9.84%. The Mission has been rightly described as une pepinière d’élite, and the turning towards English – or at least its current speeding up – has I suspect had a good deal to do with the shifting attitudes towards French amongst the fast-growing state-university-educated youth population. These young Moroccans are emerging in ever-greater numbers onto the job-market where they find themselves strongly disadvantaged vis-à-vis their Mission peers, and frequently en chômage. The ‘Arab Spring’ has probably speeded up such reactions: social and political change is tied up inextricably with language change in the minds of young Moroccans.

English – and I am not of course writing primarily here of the English of my own country (a collateral beneficiary), but of the World English that has been called Globish – is a class-free language, forgiving of mistakes, short on social markers. It offers a neural bypass around the constipated stratification of languages in Morocco, a way to internationalize the mind, and the career, without becoming wholly hostage to the different limitations of la francophonie and the Arabic-speaking world. English is in this sense also the workaround to deal with a language-defined élite.  A vector, if you like, of democracy as well as a hotlink to the globalised world of the 21st century.


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