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In her blog article Magda Iraqi Houssaini explains why the recognition of the native Berber language challenges the education system of Morocco and exposes the dependence on the French language.

Divide & Rule

When I was in Morocco last summer, I noticed that something had changed in the cityscape of Fes. While driving on the motorway from Fes towards Tangier, I noticed that the road signs displayed place names in Arabic and Tamazight. Previously, location information on the motorways was always marked in French and Arabic. As I drove into Tangier, I noticed that the government buildings were increasingly labelled in Arabic and Tamazight. Although most of the older cafés and restaurants still display their names in French and Arabic, you can see that newer signage no longer includes French. So French is gradually disappearing from the cityscape and Tamazight is becoming more present.

Tamazight is a dialect from the Central Atlas and is the most widespread Berber language spoken in Morocco, along with Taschelhit and Tarifit (Tomaštík, 2021). Amazigh or Imazighen are the Berber peoples of North Africa, settled from the Canary Islands in the west, through the Maghreb states and much of the Sahel region, to Libya and Egypt. About 12 million Imazighen are counted in Morocco, making up about 30% of the population (Tomaštík, 2021). Although there are no exact figures, it is estimated that 26%- 40% of the Moroccan population is a native speaker of one of the three Berber dialects (Ennaji, 2005).

In view of the Arab Spring protests, standardised Tamazight was recognised as an official language alongside High Arabic in 2011 as part of comprehensive constitutional changes. Initially, the recognition of Tamazight was perceived as a great success, as the Berber peoples had been marginalised and discriminated against until then. Under French protectorate, the Berber Dahir (Berber Ordinance) was introduced in 1930. The decree provided for a change in the legal system for the Berber peoples and caused a structural division of the population into "Berbers" and "Arabs". The aim of the French colonisers was to divide the country through the Berber Dahir, to isolate Berber peoples and enable a takeover of the territories and lands of the Berbers (Wyrtzen, 2011). The Arab population of the country partly supported this division, as they have since prioritised the strengthening of the Arab-Islamic culture of the country.

Even with Moroccan independence in 1956, the status of the Imazighen did not improve. In the context of the Arabisation of the country and a pronounced nationalism, the traces of the French colonial period were to be erased and a return to Morocco's Arab identity was to be established. Under these circumstances, no recognition was possible for the Imazighen. Territorial isolation, discrimination by the authorities and more difficult participation in Moroccan social and cultural life due to the use of a language not recognised or understood by the rest of the population belonged to the Imazighen. To make matters worse, in 1996 Imazighen parents were legally barred to give their newborn children Amazigh names. 

The road to recognition

Under King Mohammed VI, who ascended the throne in 1998, Morocco underwent a wave of opening and liberalisation. The aim was to be better positioned on a global scale and to become relevant on an international level (, n.d.). Projects such as the construction of the Tangier Med port, which is now one of the three largest ports in Africa, changed Morocco's status in the world. In the wake of the Arab Spring and with the adoption of the new constitution in 2011, Moroccans were granted new democratic rights and minorities were better protected. Part of this protection includes the recognition of Tamazight as the official language of the country.

Now the task was to turn this constitutional recognition into reality. The new constitution of 2011 states: "[Alongside Arabic] Tamazight is also an official language of the state, the common heritage of all Moroccans without exception." (Royaume du Maroc, 2011). There was much debate about this wording because, given the traditional and partly persistent Arabisation of the country, to speak of Tamazight as "the heritage of all Moroccans without exception" was considered both extremely progressive and extremely provocative (IRCAM, 2013). On the one hand, the country's Arab elites saw themselves in danger, and on the other, questions arose about the role of the French language. The recognition meant that changes had to be made in the education system to make room for the acquisition of the Berber dialect.

From theory into practice?

At first, however, it stayed silent about the adaptation of the curricula. There are two main reasons for this. After the adoption of the new constitution in 2011, early elections were held. The two parties that have since won the elections, gained a majority in parliament and formed the government are the parti de l'Istiqlal (literally, the Independence Party) and the parti de justice et développement (literally, the Justice and Development Party) The Istiqlal Party has a right-wing conservative, nationalist orientation and supports the Moroccan monarchy. It was instrumental in the struggle for Moroccan independence in 1956 and initiated the wave of nationalisation and Arabisation that followed independence. The parti de justice et développement is also on the right-wing conservative spectrum and pursues an Islamic monarchist ideology. Its goal is to preserve Morocco's Islamic identity and to create a transnational Arab and Muslim unity (L'Istiqlal, n.d.). Both parties pursue a nationalist ideology that is in favour of Arabisation and an Islamic monarchy. Over the last 10 years, no significant efforts have been made to put the official recognition of the Tamazight into practice, as Berber culture and its languages have little space in this ideology (L'Istiqlal, n.d.).

The Amazigh peoples nevertheless have their own lobby. The Institut Royal de la Culture Amazighe (IRCAM) was founded in 2001. IRCAM is an official academic institute responsible for promoting Amazigh culture and languages. Furthermore, it is responsible for the standardisation of the Amazigh languages and their integration into the Moroccan school system. IRCAM regularly advises the Moroccan government and thus plays a crucial role in the recognition process, but its recommendations are not binding. The merely advisory nature of IRCAM's work makes it significantly more difficult and is the second reason for the slow progress towards integrating Tamazight into the school system.

In spring 2021, the Ministry of Education surprisingly announced a change of course. In cooperation with IRCAM, an update of the school curricula in primary, secondary and upper school was developed, which was to be established progressively (, n.d.-b). Thus, the new curriculum for the primary level already came into force for the new school year 2021/22. It can be assumed that the election campaign for the parliamentary elections in autumn 2021 played a role in the surprising change of course. After the parliamentary elections in autumn 2021, the government's course also changed. The Rassemblement National des Indépendants (RNI) party (literally, national gathering of independents), an economically liberal party of the political centre, surprisingly won the majority of votes. It quickly announced the creation of an aid fund of 1 billion dirhams (about 95 million euros) to make up for the shortfalls of the past years in the course of 2022. This budget is to be invested primarily in the education system, but the administration and cultural institutions are also to benefit (, n.d.-a). IRCAM and other Imazighen representatives welcomed this move, but criticised that these investments would not be enough to fill the approximately 8,000 unfilled teaching positions in the education system (, n.d.-a).

Researchers like Alalou (2021) and Ennaji (2005) noted that Tamazight is being promoted, but the efforts would not be sufficient to compensate for the competition from public schools. French public schools play an important role in the Moroccan school system, as they open up opportunities to study or work in the Western world.

But why is French still so popular? Hasn't English long since established itself as the global language of the world? Does the French language still stand for the legacy of the former colonial power or rather for a linguistic legacy that can be understood as an opportunity to improve one's chances in a competitive, globalised labour market?



French as a Prestige Language: From School to State Power? 

"French is often viewed negatively as the ex-colonizer's language, sometimes as a secondary language or as a foreign language on a par with English and Spanish. However, it is "undeniably the language of social promotion, as it provides access to job security and to high social status" (Wagner, 1993).

French as a protectorate

As noted by Wagner, French plays a controversial role in Moroccan society. After Morocco became a French protectorate in 1912, French was declared the sole official language. It became the language of administration and instruction, but French schools were reserved for Europeans and wealthy Moroccan and Jewish students (Boukous, 1995). In 1935, only 2% of school-age children attended French schools (Benzakour, 2007). Only 269 Moroccan students obtained a baccalauréat (French baccalaureate) in that year (Benzakour, 2007). Nevertheless, the French school-leaving certificate played a decisive role in Moroccan society during the colonial period. Like the administration, the school system in Morocco was supposed to be similar in content and form to the system in France. Therefore, mainly the French language, culture and history were taught (Brignon, 1968). Those who attended such a school would later pursue a career in the prestigious French administrative apparatus and thus belong to the Moroccan elite. Through the integration of the French-educated elite into the administrative system, the French language gradually found its place in culture, politics and the cityscape.

Moroccans who did not have the opportunity to attend French schools continued to attend Arabic-language public schools, mostly Islamic, which were integrated into the French system. Pupils who received an Arabic-Islamic education were often trained by the colonisers in jobs without a high level of qualification at the end of their school career. Many also learned French in this way, but only spoken French. These language skills opened up fewer career opportunities for them in the colonial empire than were available to the privileged Moroccans. To this day, it is disputed whether there is (Moroccan) Arab-French bilingualism in Morocco, or whether French is merely a widespread second language (Benzakour, 2007; Charnet, 1985; Ennaji, 2005).

Nevertheless, French increasingly moved to the centre of society and slowly became commonplace in schools, shops, cafés and restaurants, whether at a higher or lower language level. The decisive difference, which is still a feature of the social structures today, is the different world views that separate many Moroccans depending on their education. Then as now, those who attend a French school are "modern", educated according to Western values such as those of the Enlightenment, and mostly come from the urban middle or upper classes. Those who attend an Arab school mostly come from rural areas and espouse a Muslim conservative ideology with nationalist tendencies (Ennaji, 2005). Since colonial times, therefore, a latent division of society has taken place, which still constitutes Morocco's socio-political tension. Language thus became a symbol and a crucial component of Moroccan identity: "Symbole du prestige social mais ressenti comme une blessure identitaire" (Benzakour, 2007, p. 50): "Symbol of social prestige but felt like an identitary injury".

Clearly undefined

Even after Moroccan independence, the French language remained a symbol of cosmopolitanism, (economic) success, and trade. The wave of Arabisation in Morocco in the 1960s mainly affected the public sector. Schools and administration were Arabised and High Arabic was declared the sole official language. Large parts of the private sector continued to use French. In addition, new public schools were founded every year in which instruction was given in French. In 2020, these public schools accounted for about 36% of all schools in Morocco (Royaume du Maroc, 2020). In times of the resurgence of the Arabic language, the status of French was nevertheless not defined for a long time - it had long since established itself not only in administration, but also at universities, in science, and in literature. French was no longer considered an official language de jure, but de facto it was classified as at least the first foreign language, if not the second mother tongue of many Moroccans (Benzakour, 2007).

When King Mohammed VI succeeded his father on the throne in 1999, the political line of nationalism and Arabisation changed. The national charter of schooling and education from the same year provided for the establishment of French as a 1st foreign language from the 2nd school year. While this did not explicitly give the language a special status, the preference of French over English or Spanish nevertheless speaks to the recognition of the language as a socio-cultural asset of Morocco. To this day, Moroccans with French skills have significantly better chances on the labour market than Arabic or Tamazight monolinguists (Ennaji, 2005). King Mohammed VI also makes it clear through his economic policy that French is an instrument to remain close to France, Europe and the West on an international level. France plays a major role for Morocco, as after Spain, France is Morocco's largest trading partner, both in imports and exports (Direction générale du Trésor, 2020).

As in the case of Tamazight, not much has changed in the role of French in the education system since the new constitution came into force in 2011. International reports, including from the World Bank, criticise that Morocco's education system needs fundamental reform. The latest Charter of Education and Training of 1999 is just one of the indications of this (World Bank, 2020). Rather than a displacement of French by Tamazight, there should be talk of a neglect of the education system in general (Benzakour, 2012). One of the biggest challenges here is to fill the many vacant teacher positions.

French has an ambiguous character, split between its status as a former colonial language, collaborating with French colonisers for better social status, and its status as a symbol of cosmopolitanism, a concession to Western values and a means of communication in the world of science, research and business.

Tamazight and French: Opportunity or Doom?

Tamazight and French in Morocco have many things in common. Both languages are in tension with Morocco's Arabic-Islamic current, which dominates the country. During the protectorate, Tamazight suffered from the Berber Dahir, which weakened and discriminated against Berber culture with the support of the Arab population, while French suffered above all from the Arabisation of the country after independence. 

Both languages have an unclear status at the national level, as they are spoken by many but not recognised by all. French has been largely banned from the public sector, but remains the dominant language in the private, business and academic sectors. Tamazight has been recognised in the public sector, but plays little role at the political-ideological and institutional levels.

Both languages are exposed to the international pressures of a globalised labour market and suffer from Morocco's neglected education system. Unfilled teaching positions, outdated curricula and structural underfunding caused much criticism at the international level until 2019. However, this is also the crux of the significant differences between the two languages.

The dominance of French in the private sector already starts with French public schools. Both supporters of Berber culture and proponents of the Arab-Islamic current send their children to French public schools for fear that they will be left behind on the labour market without French skills. There is still a dependence on the French language. The recognition of Tamazight is a good step towards pluralism. It may also be a further sign of Morocco's independence from France, but the economic dependencies of both state structures and Moroccans on the French state and the francophone labour market in Morocco are a sign that postcolonial, globalised structures are making the desired pluralism significantly more difficult.



Alalou, A. (2021). Language and Ideology in the Maghreb: Francophonie and Other Languages. 15. (n.d.). Economie du Royaume du Maroc. Retrieved 11 January 2022, from

Benzakour, F. (2007). Langue française et langues locales en terre marocaine: Rapports de force et reconstructions identitaires. Hérodote, 126(3), 45.

Benzakour, F. (2012). Le français au Maroc. Une variété occultée en quête de légitimité. Ponti/Ponts. Langues littératures civilisations des Pays francophones, 12, 113–131.

Boukous, A. (1995). Société, langues et cultures au Maroc: Enjeux symboliques.

Brignon, J. (1968). Histoire du Maroc. Librairie Nationale.

Charnet, C. (1985). La Situation du français au Maroc [These de doctorat, Aix-Marseille 1].

Direction générale du Trésor. (2020). Relations économiques bilatérales—MAROC.

Ennaji, M. (2005). Multilingualism, Cultural Identity and Education in Morocco. Springer.

IRCAM. (2013). Asinag. L’officialisation de l’amazighe: Défis et enjeux. Revue de l’IRCAM.

L’Istiqlal. (n.d.). Le projet de loi sur l’officialisation de l’amazigh. Portail du Parti de l’Istiqlal Maroc. Retrieved 11 January 2022, from

Royaume du Maroc. (2011). Constitution de 2011 [Digithèque MJP].

Royaume du Maroc. (2020). Liste des établissements scolaires privés autorisés par le Ministère.

Tomaštík, K. (2021). Language Policy in the Kingdom of Morocco: Arabic, Tamazight and French in Interaction. 16.

Wagner, D. A. (1993). Literacy, Culture, and Development: Becoming Literate in Morocco. New York: Cambridge University Press.

World Bank. (2020). Morocco: A case for building a stronger education system in the post Covid-19 era.

Wyrtzen, J. (2011). Colonial State-Building and the Negotiation of Arab and Berber Identity in Protectorate Morocco. International Journal of Middle East Studies, 43(2), 227–249. (n.d.-a). Législatives 2021: Des militants amazighs frappent aux portes du RNI et du PAM. Retrieved 11 January 2022, from (n.d.-b). Maroc: Un nouveau projet de curriculum de la langue amazighe pour l’enseignement primaire. Retrieved 12 January 2022, from



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