Algerians' Awkward Embrace of France

Article excerpt

In a country where France's colonial legacy is still acutely felt, Nechnech Abdelhamid proudly declares the language his relatives have spoken for many generations: "Arabic, Arabic, Arabic, Arabic," says the shy university student.

But his friend sitting beside him, Said Brihmat, interjects an uncomfortable point. "Now he is studying French because he knows he must speak French to work here," says Mr. Brihmat.

The cultural taboos against France have loosened since the days when strict Arab nationalism dominated politics - a trend driven in large part by economic necessity. France is a key trading partner with Algeria and the destination for hundreds of thousands of Algerian immigrants annually; in 2004-05, nearly 700,000 made the trek.

"French is coming back. For social mobility you need French," says James McDougall, a historian of Algeria at Princeton University in New Jersey.

As many Algerians face an uncomfortable embrace of their former colonial rulers, they are struggling to redefine an identity founded on a proud revolutionary history that eschewed all things French.

Mr. Abdelhamid, an Arab who listens to American rap, and Brihmat, an ethnic Berber fluent in French and Arabic, illustrate two contrasting perspectives of identity emerging in this diverse society.

The two debate why Algerians buy satellite dishes to watch French TV programs as well as Al Jazeera news and American MTV. They disagree over whether Arabic itself is holy. They politely differ on whether Algeria or France gives more assistance to Berbers. They even disagree over whether there is indeed any question about what being Algerian means.

"If we receive Arab [satellite] channels, they don't reflect our Algerian culture. We consider them as foreign channels. We feel we are closer with French [language] than the others," says Brihmat. "But we feel very different from the French people."

Ticking off the cultural, religious, and linguistic differences across Algeria's regions, he adds, "You see how hard it is to make a national identity."

After independence in 1962, the new constitution defined Algerians narrowly, as Arabs and Muslims. But Prof. McDougall says the strict nationalist Algerian identity developed after independence has loosened. The stigma once attached to using French has lessened as the pan-Arabism that swept the region in the 1950s and '60s, promoting Arab nationalism and rejecting foreign influences, failed to deliver on its promises. …