Algerians' awkward embrace of France

As economic forces push them toward a former ruler, they struggle to redefine their identity.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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"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.

Now, many Algerian thinkers and religious leaders once dismissed for their ties to France and its language are being rediscovered.

Still, historians say that Algerian identity has not fully recovered from colonization, whose effect was particularly strong in Algeria, which France regarded as a part of itself and not just a protectorate like its other colonies in the region.

By the time the war of independence broke out in 1954, 1 million French had settled in Algeria. France also took over the religious establishment and redistributed its landholdings to Europeans. Many Algerians tried to keep traditional language and religion alive by studying at the local mosque. But during the eight-year war for independence, millions of Algerians were forcibly moved into camps run by the French military, where Francophone schools were often established.

"The effect of colonization was devastating," says Osama Abi-Mershed, a history professor at Georgetown University in Washington. Because of "the cultural disfunctionality implanted by colonialism, [at the time of independence] there was no clear sense of what it means to be Algerian."

Prof. Abi-Mershed says many of the problems facing Algeria today can be traced back to France's colonial-era attempts to replace with French institutions the social, educational, and religious networks that defined Algerian identity.

After that, "Algeria had to recreate itself and it had to recreate itself without a sense of what it is," says Abi-Mershed.

That's been challenging, says Brihmat, because Algerians haven't been producing their own culture since colonization began in 1830.

If there's one thing that is shared in the Algerian consciousness it's the civil war between government forces and militant Islamists of the 1990s, called the Black Decade.

"The language isn't the only thing to make our identity," says Brihmat. "We have the same social problems, take the same buses, live in the same society. We have the same history in the Black Decade. All this should make our identity."

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