French is, and has remained until today, the language of power, the language of success. Some see this as accidental. Others, like Mohamed Chafik, as something much more fundamental to the architecture of independent Morocco, and as the guiding principle of a deliberately divisive education system: “One is tempted to believe,” he writes, “that [the political architects of Moroccan education] wanted, as in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, to create an impoverished Beta class for the masses, and a privileged Alpha class for them and their children.” One doesn’t need to attribute quite such deliberate malice to the framers of Moroccan education policy, but it is all too visible that the Moroccan élite, by and large, continues to send its children to the archipelago of more than 30 French lycées de mission, education at which provides a vertiginous ladder on the snakes-and-ladders board of life. That the minister of education responsible for the accelerated (and, many feel, botched) arabisation of the public system in the 1980s sent his own children to a French lycée de mission is perhaps not insignificant. One researcher, crunching the graduation statistics for these foreign lycées since Independence, shows that 45% of Moroccan graduates from the lycées de mission since 1956 come from 500 families; 34% from 200 families, 27% from 100 families, 21% from 50 families and 15% from 20 families. They are, in other words, to a large extent a support system, and a filter, for the élite. Their graduates move easily into higher education abroad, and attend recruitment fairs in Paris for management jobs in Casablanca. And they prosper.
Of course this isn’t the whole story, and like the chain of bavures in the Moroccan press, Morocco’s education and language policies can be seen as accidental outcomes of the colonial past, or can be crafted into a hostile narrative, according to one’s polemical stance. But the fact remains that post-colonial Morocco has been joined at the hip with France in a way that seems increasingly strange – and increasingly anachronistic. The weekly news magazine TelQuelrecently ran a long feature examining some of these questions, called France: un ami qui nous veut du bien? Under the subhead Un bulldozer culturel, its authors examine this interplay of culture, education and the francophone élite. They note some of the basic statistics that need to inform any discussion. French cultural spending in Morocco is amongst its highest anywhere in the world (just as its embassy in Rabat is – amazingly – amongst its largest). Each year, some 1,500 Moroccans of the 20,500 inscribed (2014) in the 39 institutions accredited to the French Ministry of Education pass the French baccalaureate, by-passing their own national qualifications system. Encapsulating the negative view, the article quotes leftist academic Youssef Belal as saying, “The French cultural and academic presence in Morocco is encouraged by the Moroccan state’s power centres, and more generally by the economic élite. This presence perpetuates a neo-colonial situation which profits the French state to such an extent that it makes the most strenuous efforts on political and economic levels [to sustain it].”
There seem to me to be two levels here of interaction. The first is about the way in which this snug relationship benefits élites in both countries; the other about the way in which it distorts Moroccan society. At the binational élite level, it is all too clear (though not my purpose here to explore): French industry has an inside track, French diplomats and politicians – until recently at least – a fairly clear run. Moroccans of a certain class move easily between the educational systems, and the social structures, of the two countries at the highest level. As Maroc Hebdo once put it, “The Moroccan élite only recruits amongst the graduates of the French grandes écoles,” and while this may be an exaggeration, it is not untrue. There are some 30,000 Moroccan students in France, the largest single national group; the thousand or so who make it into the grandes écoles are the cream of the cream. The Moroccan élite of the post-Independence period is francophone, French-educated, and French-orientated; and it is very much in the interests of France to keep it so. A largely shared culture of business, recreation, education and language maintains the intimacy of the colonial period into the post-colonial. Morocco is a jewel in the crown of la francophonie.
The second level is more interesting, and echoes my point above about the role of language and culture in making and reinforcing distinctions between Moroccans.The modern élite in Morocco is defined by its French-ness, and by its self-conscious distance from other forms of Moroccan-ness.
Sylvain Beck reckons that “Franco-Moroccan relations should really be seen as purely Moroccan-Moroccan … the French are just intermediaries in these relations.” By this he means that each Francophile cultural choice made by an actual or aspiring member of the Moroccan élite is a deliberate marker of distinction from those Moroccans who don’t, or can’t, make the same choice themselves. The ‘problem’ of France in Morocco is actually the problem of Moroccan society itself, and its costive class structure. Beck calls this “a social elevator running at two speeds, where francophony and francophily become not just cultural capital, but also weapons of domination between Moroccan citizens.”
It is very noticeable how easily Moroccans can place each other by listening to spoken French: it is replete with social and educational signals and shibboleths, some obvious to a non-francophone foreigner, others quite obscure. This isn’t intrinsically strange – the same is true of Englishmen listening to each other speaking English, after all: but what is really bizarre about it is that this process of class-judgement is done entirely through the medium of a foreign language. Coded in this way it is a way of doing down the Other – a language whose sophisticated deployment is as much designed to exclude as to communicate. And in doing so it delineates a damaging schizophrenia in Moroccan society.
A language gambit that is designed to keep people down by marking them as outsiders is bound to create and sustain resentment.
By taking on this role French becomes associated dangerously closely with an élite that may itself be coming under social and cultural, if not yet perhaps serious political, pressure.