Algeria’s Thorny Language Policy “Divide and Rule”

Two street signs in French, Arabic and Berber language in Tizi Ouzou in the Algerian Kabylia (photo from 01.12.2007).
Two street signs in French, Arabic and Berber language in Tizi Ouzou in the Algerian Kabylia (photo from 01.12.2007). The Kabyles belong to the Berbers, who are considered the original inhabitants of Algeria. They have preserved their traditions and language to this day despite Islamisation, Arabisation and the French colonial era. | Foto (Detail): Ulrike Koltermann © picture alliance / dpa

Algeria has one official language: Arabic. But French is an integral part of everyday life and Tamazight, a Berber language, is also designated in the constitution as a national and official language. Journalist Nourredine Bessadi takes a look at the emotional discussion about Algeria’s official languages.

By Nourredine Bessadi

Since Algeria’s independence in 1962, political decision-makers have been faced with the unresolved problem of which identity the country should adopt and in which language they want to express it. The question of rehabilitating the Arabic language, called Arabisation, is at issue and still leads to heated discussions today.

At that time, there was a consensus in Algerian public opinion that the written Arabic language should once again be given an important place in independent Algeria. Symbolically, Arabic stood for Islam, the anchor of Algerian identity during the colonial period. As the 1963 debates in the National Assembly about the first Algerian citizenship law show, being a Muslim was a very important element of nationality. For a large number of Algerians, it seemed normal that the Arabic language should regain the status it had lost during colonisation.

The rehabilitation of Arabic was therefore based on two pillars: Islam and the country’s struggle for liberation.

There were two possibilities for its actual implementation. One was to introduce Arabic monolingualism, which would gradually replace French in the course of the linguistic reconquest of various areas. The option of bilingualism, on the other hand, involved teaching the Arabic language more intensively and maintaining the French language alongside it.

Official monolingualism

Unlike in Morocco and Tunisia, the decision was made in Algeria for Arabic monolingualism, at least officially. In reality, things turned out to be far more complicated, because Arabic could not completely replace French. The political decision-makers, by the way, never decisively banned French, despite an official discourse that was often hostile to the language.

How is it that after six decades of a policy of deliberate Arabisation, French still holds such an important position in Algeria? Is it because of Algeria’s sociolinguistic reality, in which this language has taken firm roots, or because of the failure of the Arabisation policy? Or is it rather a situation willed by those in political power who refuse to commit themselves and thus instrumentalise the ideological confrontation by continuing to pit the proponents of Arabisation against those who want to preserve the French language?

This ideological confrontation of two value systems is quite apparent in the linguistic confrontation. On the one side are the determined advocates of Arabisation, who invoke the Middle East, Islam and the so-called Arab nation. On the other side are those who turn to the Western world, embodied by the French language. Since French must be viewed at least ambivalently due to the French colonisation of Algeria, its opponents can point to the colonial past and refer to the language’s supporters as hizb fransa (the party of France). In addition, supporters of Arabisation often oppose both French and Algerian languages, namely Algerian Arabic and especially Tamazight.

Victory for the French language?

A new impetus to the debate was provided in April 2020 by the project to draft and translate the official texts of the Algerian state. The question of which of the two versions, the Arabic or the French, represents the source version is heating up the discussion.

What is new is that the revised constitution contains a metalinguistic passage that explicitly deals with the use of the two languages and the question of translation. Since the French language has officially been downgraded to the rank of a foreign language, official Algerian texts had not given it any explicit mention until then. The words “French” or “French language” had even been carefully avoided. Only very hidden and vague terms such as “foreign languages” and “other languages” had been used to refer to the French language.

By having legal texts appear in Arabic and French, which are now explicitly mentioned, the Algerian state is adopting legal bilingualism. Algerian legislation is officially written in Arabic. Since 1969, the preamble to the Judiciary Law states that the judiciary is an “attribute of the sovereignty of the people and is done in their name and in their national language.” The French “version” continues to be the authentic reference document, namely the source text, rather than just a translation of the Arabic text.

The importance of French in everyday life  

French continues to be the first foreign language in Algerian schools as well as the language of instruction in many university courses (medicine, pharmacy, dentistry, computer science, architecture and others). Many administrative institutions, especially in the business and banking sectors, continue to work in French. This is also true of the Algerian media, a large part of which use French.

It is still easier to find work in Algeria today if you speak French and Arabic, rather than just Arabic. The language of Molière retains a privileged place in the daily lives of many Algerians. This is attested to by the many who learn the language in private language schools as well as in French institutes throughout the country and evidenced by an Algerian literature of French expression that is still alive.

Is Tamazight a secret second official language?

Despite its mention in the fourth article of the constitution as the second national and official language, the Algerian administration continues to work in Arabic and French instead of Tamazight. There it says, “Tamazight is also a national and official language.” However, article three of the Constitution says, “Arabic is the national and official language. Arabic shall remain the official language of the state.” At first glance, the two articles seem to contradict each other. One states that Arabic remains the official language of the Algerian state, and the other that Tamazight is also an official language.

Again, the politicians in power don’t seem to want to rule out interpretations by leaving the actual status of Tamazight in uncertainty. Some claim that the decision-makers want to satisfy both the advocates of the official endorsement of Tamazight and the opponents of this measure. The former by having a separate article designating Tamazight as a national and official language (article four); the latter by stating that Arabic remains the official language of the state (article three).

The unresolved status of the Arabic, French and Tamazight languages in Algeria is a frequent topic of public debate and continues to be a point of contention instrumentalised by the political elite. With regard to both French and Tamazight, emotions run high whenever laws are revised or the constitution is amended.

Everything indicates that the political decision-makers in Algeria want to play their cards close to their chest so that they can use them when the time comes and resort to the old strategy of “divide and rule.” To this end, those in power leave a lot of room for interpretation and passionate identity debates that are ignited by the languages spoken in Algeria. In other words, the political power does not give a clear answer to any question. And this is just as true for Tamazight as for French.