RABAT (Reuters) – The Moroccan economy is lost in translation.
With so many students dropping out of university because they do not speak French, the government has proposed to reintroduce it as the language of instruction in science, mathematics and technical subjects like computer science in high schools.
He also wants children to start learning French as soon as they enter school.
The country’s official languages are Arabic and Amazigh, or Berber. Most people speak Moroccan Arabic – a mixture of Arabic and Amazigh steeped in French and Spanish influences.
At school, children learn Arabic although they do not use it outside of the classroom. On their arrival at the university, the courses switch to French, the language of the urban elite and of the country’s former colonial masters. Confused? Many are.
Two in three people do not complete their studies at public universities in Morocco, mainly because they do not speak French.
The language quagmire has hampered economic growth and exacerbated inequality in this North African country, where one in four young people are unemployed and the average annual income is around $ 3,440 per person, according to the International Monetary Fund ( IMF) – less than a third of the world average.
Projects to expand the teaching of French are at the heart of Morocco’s national identity.
They would overthrow decades of Arabization after independence from France in 1956 and sparked a fury in parliament, where members of the Islamist PJD party, the main partner of the coalition government, and the conservative Istiqlal party see them as a betrayal. .
The disagreement delayed voting on the changes.
“Openness to the world should not be used as an excuse to impose the primacy of French”, declared Hassan Adili, deputy of the PJD.
Supporters say the changes reflect the reality that French reigns supreme in business, government and higher education, giving those who can afford to be privately educated in French a huge advantage over the majority of students. from the country.
“In the Moroccan labor market, fluency in French is essential. Those who do not master French are considered illiterate, ”said Hamid El Otmani, head of talents and training at the Confederation of Moroccan employers.
Even before parliament voted on the changes, Education Minister Saïd Amzazi approved the deployment of French in some schools, declaring its use in science teaching as an “irreversible choice”.
Like many Moroccan politicians, his children received private education.
“When decision-makers start sending their children to public schools, only then can we say that we have a functioning education system,” said Jamal Karimi Benchekroun of the socialist party co-leader PPS.
Amzazi did not respond to a request for comment from Reuters.
Frustration over employment and poverty has fueled periodic protests in Morocco, but the country has avoided the kind of instability that other North African states suffer, where pent-up anger has sparked uprisings and provided fertile ground for Islamist extremism.
King Mohammed VI, the ultimate power in Morocco, has proven adept at introducing limited reforms in response to popular protests. He spoke publicly about the need to teach foreign languages to students to reduce unemployment and made the economy a top priority.
Last year he sacked the finance minister after calling on the government to do more to stimulate investment.
Language problems are not unique to Morocco. In neighboring Algeria, another former French colony, students are also taught in Arabic to be greeted “in French” at the university and in the workplace.
The preeminence of French reflects the continued influence of Paris in the region. France is the leading foreign direct investor in Morocco and large companies such as car manufacturers Renault and Peugeot employ tens of thousands of people.
Private universities such as the International University of Rabat (UIR) offer courses geared towards high-growth industries such as aerospace and renewable energy and offer courses in French and English.
But a year at UIR can cost up to $ 10,000 in fees, well beyond the budget of most Moroccans. Instead, they head to non-fee public universities, where the abrupt transition to study in French is often a burden on students and their professors.
“Sometimes, we find ourselves giving French lessons during economics lessons,” explains Amine Dafir, professor of economics at Hassan II University, a public establishment in Mohamedia, near Casablanca.
Hamid Farricha, 37, dropped out of applied physics and computer science at Hassan II University in the first year. He dreamed of becoming an engineer, but the language barrier kept him from keeping pace.
Trying to find Arabic translations for French scientific words was a waste of time.
Instead, he opted to study mechanics at a vocational school. He still had to master French to be hired.
“The biggest challenge after I graduated was writing a CV and going through job interviews in French,” Farricha told Reuters.
He got a job as a technician in a car chassis repair factory, paid below the Moroccan minimum monthly wage of 2,570 dirhams, or $ 270.
Farricha was one of the lucky ones. The Moroccan economy cannot absorb all the young people looking for a job. Around 280,000 graduates entered the labor market last year, but only 112,000 jobs were created.
The graduate unemployment rate is 17 percent, higher than the national rate of 9.8 percent, according to data from Morocco’s planning agency.
Morocco’s dependence on small and medium-sized enterprises which generally do not employ graduates, and austerity measures that have cut public sector jobs are partly responsible for the high rate of unemployment. diplomas.
The education system also does not prepare students for work.
In addition to high dropout rates, Moroccan students score poorly compared to their peers on international tests, and at university level, students enroll too much in social science fields at the expense of technical subjects, according to one. IMF report at the end of 2017. This means that many do not. t have the skills employers look for when they graduate.
Even for roles that do not require a degree, French is a must. On the French website of the Moroccan employment promotion agency, almost all employers were looking for French speakers, including for positions as caretakers, waiters, cooks and drivers.
Determined to move forward, Farricha worked on her French while working at the factory. He read newspapers and books in his spare time and gave himself a list of new expressions and vocabulary to learn every day.
He returned to university in 2014 for a bachelor’s degree in French law and is preparing a master’s degree in diplomacy and international arbitration.
To support himself, he teaches French to other students.
Editing by Ulf Laessing and Carmel Crimmins