France was, perhaps still is, putting out the fire extinguishing the fire sparked by the killing of Nael Marzouki. The young man’s death at the hands of a police officer sparked unrest in different areas across the country.
From his name, one can assume that Nael is of Arab descent. His Algerian origins were not kept under wraps. Indeed, his origins have been part of the conversation since the very beginning. Nonetheless, that conversation faded into the background as the flames continued to spread.
The rage that followed Marzouki’s killing is not a novel phenomenon. We have seen the manifestation of similar indignance, each triggered by a different incident, on several occasions. However, the outcome has always been the same and is always shared by all. The government in the City of Light finds itself exhausted by its efforts to quell the flames every time.
It is not difficult to link the Marzouki affair on the northern shores of the Mediterranean and another development seen over here on the southern shores of the Mediterranean, in the land of a million martyrs. At first glance, this development could be seen as a reaction to the slaying of this young man. In reality, it is part of a broader shift.
The Algerian Ministry of Higher Education recently sent a letter to university presidents that stressed the need to replace French with English, the country’s new second language, as of the next academic year. The ministry also stressed the significance and seriousness of this decision and complying with it.
If this happens, it would be easy to tie the letter of the authorities here in Algeria to the killing of the Algerian youth in France. While this link is tenable, the fact is that the decision to replace French with English was not a recent development. In fact, the transition has been ongoing for a while now.
It began in the autumn of last year, on the same day as the 31st Arab League Summit held in the capital Algiers. The Summit’s theme, “reunification,” was later developed and seen in action at the Jeddah Summit that followed.
However, November 1, 2022, also witnessed another development in another affair that has its own trajectory – one that is no less important. A new 2000 Dinar Algerian banknote was introduced. The implications of the issuance of this banknote go beyond the circulation of the banknote or of high monetary value. For the first time, English, rather than French, text supplemented Arabic on the banknote.
Previously, Arabic and French were seen side by side on Algeria’s banknotes. Now English, the language of Shakespeare, had taken the place of French. US Ambassador to Algeria Elizabeth Moore Aubin did not want to miss her chance to seize the moment, tweeting her support of the Algerian government’s efforts to broaden the use of the English language.
The new banknote was issued on the 68th anniversary of the Algerian revolution, and the symbolism of the timing did not go unnoticed by observers of French-Algerian relations.
While the US ambassador celebrated the fact that English was becoming more widespread in Algeria, the French ambassador and government obviously felt differently. Once we add Algeria’s proactive efforts to promote the use of Arabic in domestic communications and documents, as well as the quiet progress being made in this regard, we almost see the full picture.
The French opposition was not going to let all of this go unaddressed, and it blamed French President Emmanuel Macron and the failures of his policies vis a vis the Algerians.
Much of the opposition’s claims are fair; Paris has failed to comprehend that things have changed. We are now in the third decade of the 21st century, and the two decades when France occupied Algeria are long gone. What was acceptable at the time is relevant today. The relationship of the two countries must be an equal partnership. Both sides must have a seat at the same table. Nothing but shared interests can govern this relationship. Any other foundation of their bilateral ties would be not only a deviation from the norms of diplomacy but also an affront to our era as a whole.
Losing its traditional spheres of influence in Africa is not in France’s interest. Nothing could help France stave off this scenario more than not looking at the African continent through the lens of the past.
The author is an Egyptian writer and journalist. This piece was originally published in Asharq Al Alwsat