With so many students dropping out of university because they don’t speak French, the government has proposed reintroducing it as the language for teaching science, maths and technical subjects such as computer science in high schools.
It also wants children to start learning French when they start school.
The country’s official languages are Arabic and Amazigh, or Berber. Most people speak Moroccan Arabic – a mixture of Arabic and Amazigh infused with French and Spanish influences.
In school, children are taught through Arabic although they don’t use it outside the classroom. When they get to university, lessons switch to French, the language of the urban elite and the country’s former colonial masters. Confused? Many are.
Two out of three people fail to complete their studies at public universities in Morocco, mainly because they don’t speak French.
The linguistic morass has stymied economic growth and exacerbated inequalities in the North African country, where one in four young people are unemployed and the average annual income runs at approximately $3,440 per person, according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) – less than a third of the world average.
The plans to broaden the teaching of French go to the heart of Morocco’s national identity.
They would overturn decades of Arabisation after independence from France in 1956 and have triggered a furor in parliament, where members of the Islamist PJD party, the senior partner in the coalition government, and the conservative Istiqlal party view them as a betrayal.
The disagreement has delayed a vote on the changes.
Proponents say the changes reflect the reality that French reigns supreme in business, government and higher education, giving those who can afford to be privately schooled through French a huge advantage over the majority of the country’s students.
“In the Moroccan job market, mastery of French is indispensable. Those who do not have command of French are considered illiterate,” said Hamid El Otmani, head of talent and training at the Confederation of Moroccan Employers.
Even before parliament votes on the changes, Education Minister Said Amzazi has okayed the roll-out of French in some schools, declaring its use in teaching scientific subjects as an “irreversible choice”.
Like many Moroccan politicians, his children received a private education.
“When decision-makers start sending their children to public schools, only then can we say that we have a successful education system,” said Jamal Karimi Benchekroun of the co-ruling socialist PPS party.
Frustration over jobs and poverty has fueled periodic protests in Morocco, but the country has avoided the sort of instability suffered by other North African states, where pent-up anger has triggered 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 protest. He has spoken publicly about the need to teach foreign languages to students to reduce unemployment and has made the economy a top priority.
Last year, he sacked the minister for finance after calling on the government to do more to boost investment.
Problems with language are not unique to Morocco. In neighboring Algeria, another former French colony, students are also schooled in Arabic only to be greeted “en francais” in university and the workplace.
French’s pre-eminence reflects Paris’ continuing influence in the region. France is the biggest foreign direct investor in Morocco and large companies such as carmakers Renault and Peugeot employ tens of thousands of people.
Privately-run universities such as the International University of Rabat (UIR) have courses geared toward high-growth industries such as aerospace and renewable energy and offer tuition in French and English.
But a year at UIR can cost up to $10,000 in fees, way beyond the budget of most Moroccans. They go instead to non-fee paying public universities, where the abrupt transition to studying in French is frequently a burden for students and their lecturers.
The unemployment rate for graduates is 17 percent, above the national rate of 9.8 percent, according to data from Morocco’s planning agency.
Morocco’s reliance on small and medium-sized companies which do not typically employ graduates, and austerity drives which have cut public sector jobs are part of the reason for the high rate of graduate unemployment.
The education system is also failing to prepare students for work.
In addition to high dropout rates, Moroccan students score badly compared to peers on international tests, and at university level, students oversubscribe to social science fields at the expense of technical subjects, according to an IMF report in late 2017. That means many don’t have the skills employers are looking for when they graduate.
Even for roles not requiring a degree, French is a must. On the French website of Morocco’s job promotion agency, almost all employers were looking for French speakers, including for jobs as guards, waiters, cooks and drivers.