Why is Arabic Provoking such Controversy in France?

15 November, 2020



Melissa Chemam


In the light of recent trag­ic events in France, in which young Mus­lims from Chech­nia and Tunisia com­mit­ted mor­tal knife attacks on a teacher from Con­flans-Sainte-Hon­orine near Paris and three parish­ioners in a church in Nice, stereo­typ­ing dis­cours­es about Mus­lims and Ara­bic speak­ers are only adding fuel to the fire. 

#Sep­a­ratisme : le ren­force­ment de l’ap­pren­tis­sage de l’arabe à l’é­cole divisehttps://t.co/qE21a91IgM

— CNEWS (@CNEWS) Octo­ber 7, 2020

It would seem obvi­ous, how­ev­er, that if more French peo­ple learned and spoke Ara­bic, inter­cul­tur­al exchanges and dia­logue between France and the Arab world would be great­ly facil­i­tat­ed, although it’s dif­fi­cult to say whether this would mean a social sea change that could deter rad­i­cal­ized Islamists.

The sub­ject of Ara­bic instruc­tion in the schools has been fierce­ly debat­ed in French media over the past few weeks, with far-right com­men­ta­tors describ­ing Ara­bic as a threat to France. On tele­vi­sion chan­nels like CNews and on the main­stream radio France Inter or again in the dai­ly local news­pa­per Le Parisien, xeno­pho­bic pun­dits are push­ing back against the Ara­bic language.

Why so much resis­tance to a language?

Nada Ghosn is a French-born trans­la­tor from Ara­bic into French. Her par­ents came to France from Lebanon in the ear­ly 1980s but her father did­n’t teach her Ara­bic. She learned some con­ver­sa­tion­al sha­mi with her moth­er but main­ly gained flu­en­cy at uni­ver­si­ty, inspired by a French friend who had no con­nec­tion to the Arab world. Ghosn lat­er spent a year in Syr­ia to improve her skills. “It’s a very dif­fi­cult mis­sion to learn Ara­bic in France,” she avows. “Schools only teach it in cer­tain neigh­bor­hoods, the best stu­dents are advised to learn oth­er lan­guages. And it’s even more dif­fi­cult to become an Ara­bic teacher: there are only three to four posi­tions per year for hun­dreds of appli­cants. But also, the lan­guage was nev­er made attrac­tive at school; we were told it’s of no use, while there are 200 mil­lion speak­ers in the world. To me, it comes from an old colo­nial belief that Ara­bic cul­tures are beneath West­ern cultures.”

We can­not pro­duce sta­tis­tics about eth­nic ori­gins in France because a nation­al cen­sus based on race or nation­al­i­ty is for­bid­den and described as dis­crim­i­na­to­ry, so one can only find unsci­en­tif­ic infor­ma­tion about the coun­try’s pop­u­la­tion make­up. Accord­ing to these esti­ma­tions, there may be more than six mil­lion French cit­i­zens of Arab her­itage, who would thus form the sec­ond largest eth­nic group in the coun­try, after French peo­ple of “French ori­gins” (often mixed with Span­ish, Ital­ian and Por­tuguese heritage).

As the pop­u­la­tion orig­i­nat­ing from Ara­bic-speak­ing coun­tries is so large, it would only be rea­son­able for first- and sec­ond-gen­er­a­tion chil­dren to be able to learn their fam­i­ly lan­guage prop­er­ly and, if they learn it at home, to use their skills at school. And for years, some par­ents, schol­ars and teach­ers have been ask­ing for more class­es of Ara­bic in pri­ma­ry and mid­dle schools in France. 

Yet, the best places to learn the lan­guage in France are in fact at cul­tur­al insti­tu­tions, like the Insti­tut du Monde Arabe and the Insti­tut des Cul­tures d’Is­lam, and at some of the best uni­ver­si­ties, such as INALCO and Sci­ences Po in Paris, Aix and Stras­bourg, and at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Mont­pel­li­er. While France has spent decades cre­at­ing eco­nom­ic rela­tion­ships with the Mid­dle East and North Africa, it is deplorable that the coun­try cur­rent­ly has very few experts in the field, and too few Ara­bic speakers.

Because Ara­bic is asso­ci­at­ed with Islam in France, too many think it should­n’t be pro­mot­ed let alone taught in schools, as that would only fos­ter ter­ror­ism. Yet a 2018 report from the Mon­taigne Insti­tute enti­tled The Fac­to­ry of Islamism urged the Min­istry of Nation­al Edu­ca­tion to relaunch learn­ing of the Ara­bic language.

Accord­ing to the report’s author, Hakim El Karoui, an aca­d­e­m­ic at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Lyon, “It is essen­tial to mobi­lize the Min­istry of Nation­al Edu­ca­tion to train man­agers and teach­ers in sec­u­lar­ism that they do not always know. Teach them to inter­pret signs of reli­gious extrem­ism too. Under­stand what is admis­si­ble in the name of free­dom of belief and what is not because it vio­lates this same free­dom of belief…Relaunching the learn­ing of the Ara­bic lan­guage is essen­tial as Ara­bic cours­es in mosques have become the best way for Islamists to attract young peo­ple to their mosques and schools.”

berrakkarakas · Learn­ing arabic

Journalist Sophie Claudet
Jour­nal­ist Sophie Claudet

French nation­al Sophie Claudet is an inter­na­tion­al jour­nal­ist, trilin­gual in French, Eng­lish and Ara­bic, a rar­i­ty in France. She has been based in Pales­tine, trav­elled to Iraq and Egypt among many oth­er Arab coun­tries. Yet she learned Ara­bic because she spent a lot of time in Moroc­co as a child, main­ly lis­ten­ing to peo­ple speak­ing local dialec­tal Ara­bic, or Dar­i­ja. “French high schools do not teach Ara­bic well,” she says. “Lan­guages in gen­er­al are not val­ued in France; they are very poor­ly taught. The French sys­tem does not help you main­tain anoth­er cul­ture. It only works if you’re a son or daugh­ter of diplo­mats. But Ara­bic isn’t taught because of latent racism,” she added.

Sophie went on to learn clas­si­cal and writ­ten Ara­bic not in France, but in the US, where she moved to study after high school. She reck­ons that while the US and the UK tend to val­ue work­ers with a mul­ti­cul­tur­al back­ground, France does not, because of a fear of sep­a­ratism. “In France, Ara­bic is auto­mat­i­cal­ly asso­ci­at­ed with Islam, not to a very diverse cul­ture or lit­er­a­ture,” she reck­ons, “and Islam is viewed as a threat to West­ern values.”

To her point, most politi­cians in the right-wing par­ties esti­mate that a pos­si­ble strength­en­ing of Ara­bic in school would fuel sep­a­ratism of the Fran­co-Arab pop­u­la­tion, in a coun­try already con­sid­ered one of the most Islam­o­pho­bic in the world. 

A num­ber of French edu­ca­tion min­is­ters and media per­son­al­i­ties, from both right and left par­ties, have described Ara­bic as the lan­guage of one reli­gion, Islam, as if Latin was only the reli­gion of Chris­tian­i­ty and not of a long and event­ful his­tor­i­cal vehi­cle for knowl­edge. They also say that Islam does­n’t belong in France and there­fore should­n’t be promoted.

“But Ara­bic is sim­ply a beau­ti­ful lan­guage,” Sophie says, “and a cul­tur­al asset in a glob­al world, as well as a lan­guage very use­ful for busi­ness. France often thinks it does­n’t need for­eign cultures.”

Nada Ghosn shares the same views. “It’s almost impos­si­ble to be accept­ed in France if you have a dou­ble cul­ture; it’s con­sid­ered a betray­al of Repub­li­can val­ues. And Arab cul­tures are more stig­ma­tised than any oth­ers. But to me, this is a fas­cist idea, and goes against val­ues of tol­er­ance and open­ness. It comes from a supe­ri­or colo­nial belief.” She says for instance that her own nieces don’t want to learn Ara­bic and are often asked at school if they are Mus­lims, to which they feel safer say­ing no.

I grew up in a sub­urb of Paris in the 1990s, at a time when almost no school offered Ara­bic lessons. Now, in Paris, its sub­urbs and in big cities like Lyon, Mar­seille, Mont­pel­li­er and Aix, more schools have put Ara­bic on offer, espe­cial­ly since 2003, when then-Pres­i­dent Jacques Chirac launched a com­mis­sion on laïc­ité and how Ara­bic and reli­gion were taught in pri­vate class­es. Inter­na­tion­al high schools like the Lycée Balzac in Paris have taught Ara­bic for more than two decades. Cur­rent­ly about 400 mid­dle and high schools in Met­ro­pol­i­tan France as well as over­seas ter­ri­to­ries offer Ara­bic as a first, sec­ond or third language—10 of them in Paris and 14 in Mar­seille. There are near­ly 15,000 stu­dents of Ara­bic nation­wide this year.

Yet only 0.1% of French pupils learn Ara­bic, while 96.4% are taught Eng­lish. The most favoured sec­ond lan­guages remain Span­ish, Ger­man, Ital­ian and Russ­ian. The para­dox is that Ara­bic is increas­ing­ly becom­ing an elit­ist lan­guage in some pres­ti­gious uni­ver­si­ties. In fact Ara­bic is trend­ing, like Man­darin, among French and inter­na­tion­al stu­dents, who most often have no con­nec­tion with the Arab world.

The Unit­ed Nations rec­og­nizes six offi­cial lan­guages which are used in its diplo­ma­cy and oper­a­tions, at UN meet­ings, and for offi­cial doc­u­ments. These are Ara­bic, Chi­nese, Eng­lish, French, Russ­ian, and Span­ish. The first ses­sion of the Unit­ed Nations Gen­er­al Assem­bly des­ig­nat­ed the first five of its offi­cial lan­guages in 1946. Ara­bic was not among them. The Ara­bic lan­guage gained recog­ni­tion as an offi­cial UN lan­guage more than 25 years lat­er on Decem­ber 18, 1973. Then in 2010, the UN Edu­ca­tion­al, Sci­en­tif­ic, and Cul­tur­al Orga­ni­za­tion (UNESCO) estab­lished Decem­ber 18 as Ara­bic Lan­guage Day in order to “cel­e­brate mul­ti­lin­gual­ism and cul­tur­al diver­si­ty as well as to pro­mote equal use of all six offi­cial lan­guages through­out the organization.”

At Sci­ences Po Paris, about 1,000 stu­dents learn Ara­bic every year, while some 300 devote them­selves to the study of Mid­dle East­ern cul­tures at the uni­ver­si­ty in Men­ton. “Over the past five years or so, we have seen a steady increase in the num­ber of stu­dents who reg­is­ter in Ara­bic at all lev­els offered in that lan­guage,” accord­ing Ruth Gros­richard, Ara­bic teacher and for­mer head of the Ara­bic depart­ment at Sci­ences Po. Nowa­days, Sci­ences Po is the French uni­ver­si­ty pro­gram with the most stu­dents study­ing Ara­bic, just behind INALCO, which spe­cial­izes in Asian and East­ern lan­guages, far ahead of all oth­er high­er edu­ca­tion institutions.

In a recent inter­view with France Info, Nada Yafi, direc­tor of the Arab Lan­guage and Civ­i­liza­tion Cen­ter at the Insti­tut du Monde Arabe, said that “at uni­ver­si­ty, Ara­bic is a field of excel­lence while at pri­ma­ry and sec­ondary school, this lan­guage arous­es fear.”

So how to explain this dis­crep­an­cy? Accord­ing to Nada Yafi, it is a specif­i­cal­ly French prob­lem as “in oth­er Euro­pean coun­tries, the lan­guage is not the sub­ject of debate and does not gen­er­ate ten­sion.” Two years pri­or, she had penned in the review Ori­ent XXI that “behind the debate of ideas, we see hid­den pas­sions resur­face, old wounds: that of an unas­sim­i­lat­ed war in Alge­ria; that of nation­al pride incon­solable at the loss of a vast empire.”

The French Min­is­ter of Nation­al Edu­ca­tion, Jean-Michel Blan­quer, and the Inte­ri­or Min­is­ter, Gérald Dar­marin, recent­ly announced that they want to see more chil­dren learn Ara­bic in schools, instead of mosques for instance. They haven’t detailed a con­crete plan yet to train more Ara­bic teach­ers. But spe­cial­ists in Ara­bic lan­guage and cul­tures insist that Ara­bic should not be seen as a counter-actor against extreme reli­gious beliefs. The lan­guage exist­ed pri­or to Islam, wrote Fran­coise Lorcerie, researcher at the French sci­en­tif­ic cen­ter CNRS, and it is used beyond the pur­pose of spirituality.

In the mean­time, let’s hope that oth­er edu­ca­tors man­age to keep on teach­ing tol­er­ance, along with an inter­est in for­eign cul­tures and languages. 


Melissa Chemam is a cultural journalist, lecturer, and the author of a book on Bristol’s music scene, Massive Attack – Out of the Comfort Zone. A TMR contributing editor, she writes a monthly music column in which she explores Arab music and the greater Middle East, and how they influence music production around the world. She tweets @melissachemam.

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