Youth’s rush to French language exam has Algerian authorities on defensive

November 05, 2017
Frustration. A file picture shows young men holding their passports in front of the ticketing office of Algerian airline Air Algérie in the capital Algiers. (Reuters)

Tunis - Thousands of young peo­ple crowded the streets of Algiers in a desperate attempt to gain entry to the French Institute to take a French language exam.

The exam, a requirement for stu­dents applying to French universi­ties in France, Belgium and Cana­da, is usually scheduled online but many students were unable to sign up this year because the institute’s website crashed.

Some were so determined to re­serve a spot for the exam that they slept overnight in front of the in­stitute. October 29, the morning of the exam, images of desperate students packing the streets went viral.

The scene was deeply embar­rassing for the government. Some officials, however, called the gath­ering a “conspiracy” to stain Alge­ria’s image on the eve of celebra­tions for its war of liberation.

“There is no coincidence in this affair of the students and even if there were a coincidence it was taken advantage of,” said Sed­dik Chiheb, spokesman of the National Democratic Rally, which is led by Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia. “This was staged to put more pressure on the government and undermine the image of Alge­ria ahead of the 63rd anniversary of the Liberation War.”

The French Institute said there was such a large demand to take en­trance exams that the sheer num­ber of visitors crashed the website. There were “700,000 connections per day to [reserve a place] and sometimes 70,000 connections at the same time,” the institute said in a statement. “The web-based plat­form was completely saturated… We are surprised by the surge of candidates to take the test.”

The institute extended the exam period to November 9 to accom­modate the large number of appli­cants.

Zine al Abidine, an Algerian who lives abroad, wrote on social media that the French Institute was not at fault for the large crowd, which gathered just before the November 1 war commemorations.

“Shame on the regime that failed to give a decent life for the Algerians at home,” he said. “The numbers… of skilled and educated Algerians who left the country are frightening. These represent the future of the country. That means we lost that future many times.”

In an interview with local media, French Institute Director Alexis Andres noted that the number of visas was increasing.

“In 2016, we granted more than 7,000 visas for students,” he said. “This year we will accord 8,500 visas. For next year, I cannot say how many visas we will deliver. The demand is in indeed huge. Studies in France are very popular and attractive.”

About 23,000 Algerian students are enrolled in French universities making up 8% of France’s foreign students.

Analysts said the trend raises important questions about Alge­ria’s development policies, par­ticularly regarding the education system that enrolls more than 10 million students, including 1.5 mil­lion in universities.

Many expressed concern that Algeria’s large number of its best students were leaving to study abroad, leaving the country with­out its top resources to build a bet­ter future.

“The problem of young Algeri­ans throwing themselves into the sea of French culture is less dan­gerous than less fortunate youth crowding rickety boats and risk­ing their lives to reach Europe, namely France,” wrote Said Okba, a leading commentator for Alge­ria’s main Arabic language daily, el Khabar.

“The solution is to reform and improve the education system and the ways students learn a language and other subjects but, in Algeria, the degradation is not just in the ways of learning French. There is a widespread degradation damaging all fields from medicine to technol­ogy to the value of the dinar to the diplomacy,” he added.

El Khabar wrote in another commentary that “the scene of students summarised the frustra­tions and widespread disappoint­ment about the situation in the country with no glimmer of hope about the future. The government is talking about the ‘flow of foreign investment.’ If that is true, why are youth leaving the country en masse, whether legally on visas or illegally by boats?”

Political analyst Mustapha Ham­mouche said: “Political leaders and the top government bureau­crats often boast about sending their children to Europe or North America to study and live, setting the trend for the rest of the coun­try.

A study by the University of Science and Technology Houari Boumediene, Algeria’s larg­est university, said that the ef­fect of top students going abroad caused Algeria to lose the equivalent of $40 billion from 2014-16, including 13,500 doctors, most of whom settled in France.