In an interview on public television in June, he called French “a spoil of war,” a compliment suggesting the language had benefitted the country even though the language resulted from France's colonization of Algeria from 1830 to 1962.
Islamist party leader Abderrazak Makri was less diplomatic at the time: “We must put an end to the colonial heritage of France. (Even) President Macron speaks more English than French abroad. Now it is English which is the universal language, it is time for Algerians to appropriate it, to get in tune with the great nations,” he said.
As it stands, French will remain the main second language in the country of almost 44 million. High school students this year will continue receiving five hours of French instruction and three hours of English a week. In primary schools, third graders will be taught 90 minutes of English a week in addition to their five hours of French.
Commentators say the change, while incremental, remains highly political as it charts a course for an English-speaking future.
“The teaching of English in primary school ... goes beyond the question of language and pedagogy. It is an ideological operation whose goal is the gradual replacement of French by English in Algerian society and in institutions,” said Ahmed Tessa, a state French language advisor.
“It is a way of taking some distance from France and its linguistic and cultural heritage in Algeria.”
Others say speaking English is simply a reality of the current world, and Algeria has been slow to modernize.
“This should have been done a long time ago," said parent of two Kahina Mahmoudi. "We are late. You know, I had my kids start learning English (even) before the return to school. I’ll say again, we are late.”
Thomas Adamson contributed from Paris