A Bilingual Bourgeois: The Class Politics behind Morocco’s Language Debate

“Je ne connais pas l’arabe”—I don’t speak Arabic. While the former Moroccan education minister didn’t realize it at the time, these seemingly innocuous words would catapult the nation into a linguistic firestorm. The minister in question, Rachid Belmokhtar, was on a France24 interview when he sarcastically claimed not to know Arabic—the language spoken by over 92% of the country.[1] Many Moroccans, however, did not take kindly to the joke. Within days, the National Coalition of Protection of the Arabic Language had already issued a statement urging for his resignation on the grounds of “threatening the educational and the linguistic security of the Moroccan people.” Others on social media went as far as to claim Belmokhtar was “illiterate.”[2]

These criticisms likely would have persisted scandal or not. Belmokhtar’s numerous pro-French education reforms had already made him deeply unpopular with the country’s hardline arabisants.[3] But regardless, this reaction illustrates the sheer contentiousness surrounding Morocco’s language divide—a divide representing the culmination of colonial rule, economic inequality, and cultural identity.

Despite only being spoken fluently by 13.5% of the population,[4] the continuation of French as a prestige language is the product of several historical factors. Namely, French colonial policy as well as the Moroccan elite’s collaboration with France both during and after occupation. In theory, France’s guiding colonial doctrine was one of “assimilation.” While the British worked behind the scenes to manipulate existing structures of power, the French worked much more closely with the accepted traditional African elite.[5] This often meant providing the rich a French education and some political leverage. Not only was this policy justified on account of its cheapness, but it was also seen as more efficient. Because Morocco’s pre-colonial sultanate had no separation of powers, administrators exploited the highly centralized governmental structure by legislating directly through the dominant executive branch—thereby avoiding bureaucracy in Paris.[6] Thus, being able to speak French and communicate with the administrators implied substantial political benefits.

However, while the practice of “assimilation” was popular in theory, its implementation was met with numerous logistical hurdles. The stated aim of assimilation was to transform Africans in the French colonies into black French men and women.[7] Not only was this effort confronted with strong cultural resistance in Muslim North Africa, this also would have entailed an enormous expenditure on education.[8] Thus, several compromises were made. Most notably, efforts at widespread education were abandoned in favor of educating a small elite group. The result of this was a progressive class separation between the Frenchified elite and the rest of the country which had been much less favored in its access to education.[9]

This filial relationship between the traditional African ruling class and French administrators has gone on to shape relations throughout the colonies even after independence. The sociopolitical pact is so strong, in fact, that scholars have coined a term for France’s sphere of influence—Françafrique. For Morocco in particular, French influence has led to security sharing agreements, military aid, and bilateral foreign direct investment.[10] The political and economic incentives to learning French are very real. Still, the average working-class Moroccan has little means of accessing the economic benefits of Morocco and France’s international partnership. While most Moroccan children attend under-resourced public schools, the elite continue to bypass the system they created by sending their kids to wealthy private/international schools. This overwhelming educational disparity is particularly visible in language instruction. A recent government study found that only 9% of Moroccan public-school children end middle school with a satisfactory level in French compared to 62% of private-school children.[11]

This poses a problem when considering that bilinguals statistically go on to occupy higher positions, most of which are inaccessible to public school graduates.[12] As such, parents who can afford foreign language instruction are able to secure opportunities for future generations, while the country’s poor get left behind—unable to find footing in an increasingly globalized economy. These cycles of poverty and wealth are reflected in the Global Social Mobility Index which ranks Morocco 73 out of 82 in terms of intergenerational socioeconomic mobility.[13] Thus, one must ask whether Morocco has ever truly escaped its colonial past. While the rhetoric surrounding national identity has changed, the reality for most Moroccans remains the same. Good jobs and opportunities are gated behind fluency in French and English. Yet even today, only a select few are provided with sufficient linguistic education to overcome such barriers.

While recognizing this disparity is important, it is only one half of the equation. Equally important is learning from the failures of past reforms. After gaining independence, Morocco adopted an official policy of Arabization which sought to promote the use of Arabic in its education system. The goal was to unify Moroccans under a common language and distance the country from its colonial past.[14] While initially popular, these reforms arguably worsened the language divide by crippling the public school system and marginalizing native languages.

Because Arabization was heavily rooted in religious and nationalistic dogma, much of its implementation was ill-planned and ideologically driven. Attempts at reform often ignored the linguistic realities of the country in favor of total Arabization which was deemed more “authentic.” Nationalist lawmakers pushed for the complete removal of French from the Moroccan education system before Arabic curricula had fully been developed.[15] In addition to political problems, Morocco’s Arabization reforms suffered from critical flaws in implementation. A lack of domestic professionals forced the country to rely on teachers from other Middle Eastern countries such as Egypt, Syria, and Sudan. However, when Morocco broke diplomatic ties with Egypt during the Sand War, 350 Egyptian teachers were expelled from Moroccan schools.[16] This crippled the country’s attempts at Arabic education. Blunders such as these have crippled the nation’s public school system and drastically undermined public confidence in language education.

Morocco’s Arabization reforms have also marginalized heritage languages such as Darija (dialectical Arabic) and Amazigh. During colonial occupation, the French allowed rural Amazigh tribes to retain customary law instead of following Islamic law. To the nationalists, this policy was seen as an attempt to “divide and rule” by subverting national and religious unity.[17] Whether true or not, this impression has led many Moroccans to associate Amazigh identity with French sympathies. As such, these communities have historically been the targets of discrimination. Even today, findings show that the Amazigh do not have equitable access to national resources and public jobs.[18] Again, this disparity poses a serious problem for a country that seeks to modernize. For Morocco to overcome its history of linguistic discrimination, it needs to first reconcile with its past. And although there have been reforms in recent years to promote Amazigh, these conversations are only just beginning.

In devising an equitable solution, it is critical to learn from the past. Prior reforms illustrate the dangers of mixing ideology with education. Historical analysis of French colonialism reveals how language inequality isn’t just a product of the system but a fundamental part of it. Morocco’s language divide is highly nuanced and we can’t expect a panacea. But should the country reconsider its cultural heritage and welcome all voices to the table, perhaps a solution—however imperfect—is closer than we think.


[1] “Démographie – Maroc.” RGPH 2014. Accessed October 20, 2022. http://rgphentableaux.hcp.ma/Default1/.

[2] Al Arabiya English. “Moroccan Minister Says of Course He Knows Arabic.” Al Arabiya English. Al Arabiya English, May 20, 2020. https://english.alarabiya.net/variety/2015/02/27/Moroccan-minister-claims-not-to-speak-Arabic-stirs-uproar-.

[3] “Standard Arabic, Darija, French or English?” New Age | The Most Popular Outspoken English Daily in Bangladesh. Accessed October 22, 2022. https://www.newagebd.net/article/180632/standard-arabic-darija-french-or-english.

[4] “La Francophonie Dans Le Monde.” archive.org. Organisation internationale de la Francophonie, September 28, 2022. https://www.international.gc.ca/world-monde/international_relations-relations_internationales/francophonie/index.aspx?lang=eng.

[5] Subramaniam, V. “Why Are the French-Speaking African Elite Different?” Economic and Political Weekly 7, no. 4 (1972): 146–48. http://www.jstor.org/stable/4360976.

[6] Knight, M. M. “French Colonial Policy–the Decline of ‘Association.’” The Journal of Modern History 5, no. 2 (1933): 208–24. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1875341.

[7] “Colonial Policy.” Colonial Policy – an overview. Science Direct. Accessed October 24, 2022. https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/social-sciences/colonial-policy#:~:text=France%20had%20a%20grand%20assimilationist,all%20Africans%20into%20French%20culture.

[8] Subramaniam, V. “Why Are the French-Speaking African Elite Different?” Economic and Political Weekly 7, no. 4 (1972): 146–48. http://www.jstor.org/stable/4360976.

[9] LABOURET, HENRI. “France’s Colonial Policy in africa1.” African Affairs XXXIX, no. CLIV (January 1940): 22–35. https://doi.org/10.1093/oxfordjournals.afraf.a100972.

[10] Saad Eddine Lamzouwaq – Morocco World News. “Moroccan-French Relations under Macron: What to Expect?” https://www.moroccoworldnews.com/. Accessed October 23, 2022. https://www.moroccoworldnews.com/2017/05/216038/moroccan-french-relations-macron.

[11] Issam Toutate – Morocco World News. “Study Found Overwhelming Gap between Public and Private Schools.” https://www.moroccoworldnews.com/, December 1, 2021. https://www.moroccoworldnews.com/2021/12/345810/pnea-survey-shows-low-schooling-level-in-moroccan-public-schools.

[12] Alalou, Ali. “Language and Ideology in the Maghreb: Francophonie and Other Languages.” The French Review 80, no. 2 (2006): 408–21. http://www.jstor.org/stable/25480661.

[13] “Global Social Mobility Report – World Economic Forum.” weforum. World Economic Forum, January 2020. https://www3.weforum.org/docs/Global_Social_Mobility_Report.pdf.

[14] Smail 2017 Reporting Fellow, Gareth. “An Eye to Modernizing: Morocco Replaces Arabic with French in High School Courses.” Pulitzer Center, December 6, 2017. https://pulitzercenter.org/stories/eye-modernizing-morocco-replaces-arabic-french-high-school-courses#:~:text=%22Arabization%22%20of%20Moroccan%20education%20had,French%20in%20the%20late%201980s.

[15] Hannouchi, Said. “Multilingual Education in Morocco: Back to the Future?” hkspublications. Journal of Middle Eastern Politics and Policy, February 21, 2018. https://jmepp.hkspublications.org/2018/01/19/multilingual-education-in-morocco-back-to-the-future/#:~:text=Postcolonial%20Language%20Policy&text=Arabization%20sought%20to%20make%20Standard,caught%20between%20ideals%20and%20realities.

[16] Stephen Hughes, Morocco under King Hassan , Reading, UK, Ithaca, 2001, p. 138

[17] Hoffman, Katherine E. “Berber Law by French Means: Customary Courts in the Moroccan Hinterlands, 1930–1956.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 52, no. 4 (2010): 851–80. doi:10.1017/S0010417510000484.

[18] “International Pact on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.” tbinternet. United Nations, September 2015. https://tbinternet.ohchr.org/Treaties/CESCR/Shared%20Documents/MAR/INT_CESCR_CSS_MAR_21119_E.pdf.