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The History of the French Language in Egypt

Updated on March 28, 2018
A bilingual French-Arabic sign in Alexandria.
A bilingual French-Arabic sign in Alexandria. | Source

If French came to Egypt in 1798 by the sword, it was grace to the pen that it stayed there. For the better part of two centuries, Egypt, despite only resting under French control for a few brief years and for more than sixty years placed under English domination, was a privileged land for the French language, which reached the statue of being co-official with Arabic. Although it never attained the status of a popular vernacular, between the time of Napoleon up to as recently as Anwar Sadat the French language was a marker of prestige and a common tongue among much of the Egyptian literary and political elite, and French still continues to be an influential language in Egypt despite the increased role of English.

Origins of French in Egypt

France’s foray into Egypt came in 1798, when Napoleon Bonaparte’s army landed after its voyage across the Mediterranean, when it had avoided English fleets which attempted to engage it and had captured Malta. Despite its paucity in numbers compared to the Egyptians, the French army, professional, modern, confident, and experienced from years of revolutionary warfare, was more than capable of defeating the hidebound Mameluke armies which opposed it. This they did with efficiency, as French forces marched across Egypt, winning battles from the desert sands to under the shadows of the Pyramids. French control in Egypt had been established, but it would be flitting and brief; the French fleet was destroyed at its anchor by British forces, cutting off the army from reinforcement from France, and an expedition to march up the Levant coast would fail at Tyre. Despite inflicting further defeats upon Ottoman forces and holding out for several years more, Napoleon would endeavor to return to France, and French forces in Egypt would be defeated.

The defeat of the French army did not mean that France’s influence would be left unmarked upon this country. Famous to posterity would be the savants, the array of engineers, artists, and scientists, who had accompanied the armies which had marched across Egypt. They would write the famous Description de l'Égypte, and collect innumerable numbers of Egyptian artifacts. The savants in Egypt marked the beginning of a long European interest in the country, and especially about Ancient Egypt, the dynasties which had built the pyramids so long ago that they were ancient when Caesar had come to Egypt - more ancient to him than he is to us. And if the Rosetta Stone was lost to British forces who would take it back to the British Museum, it would be France which would gain the honor of achieving the great breakthrough in the new field of Egyptology, with the translation of hieroglyphics in the 1820s by Jean-Franois Champollion. France’s privileged role in this field would not soon vanish.

During this date the most present foreign language in the Eastern Mediterranean was Italian, brought about by the influence of Venice and Genoa who by their commercial activities had led to the expansion of the Italian language's use. France's invasion of Egypt would mark the state of French influence supplanting Italian. It would be when Egypt came into its own as an independent state that French would begin to blossom truly in its influence in the country.

The Rosetta Stone, initially captured by French armies although taken later by the British, would be deciphered by the French and would prove key to the understanding of hieroglyphics.
The Rosetta Stone, initially captured by French armies although taken later by the British, would be deciphered by the French and would prove key to the understanding of hieroglyphics. | Source

An Independent Egypt

Although the French were driven out of Egypt, the damage to Ottoman control, already tenuous, was near-complete : the power vacuum left by French evacuation resulted in a struggle between Turkish, Mameluke, and Albanian mercenary factions, with Muhammad Ali's Albanians ultimately winning control, and him establishing a dynasty that would come to role an Egypt that would be independent in all but name.

This new, independent, Egypt would turn to France as its patron state (being at times isolated except for its French patron, such as in the 1840 Eastern Crisis when France supported Egypt against an Ottoman empire on the verge of collapse, but was forced to back down by an alliance of the rest of the European powers), and would make great use of French, a language of modernization and connection to the wider world. Many French advisors came, such as former Napoleonic officers, medical personnel (such as Antoine Clot, who reformed the Egyptian medical system on French lines, setting up modern Egyptian medicine), and engineers. French would come to be widely used in commerce, law, and among the elite.

Furthermore, French would be expanded within Egypt through its education, such as in Catholic missionary schools which began to develop in the 1840s and 50s and marked a rapid expansion of the number of Francophones in the country. The boarding school of Notre-Dame-de-Sion, Mère-de-Dieu, and for girls, Sacré-Coeur, and for the Jesuits, Saint-Marc, were the most prestigious. From 1844 onwards, they were open to Egyptians as well as foreigners. In particular this was among the Christian and Jewish population of the country, with the expansion of the Jewish francophone population thanks in particular to the operations of the Alliance israélite universelle. France in the Ottoman Empire (of which Egypt was formally part), had a role as the guardian of Christians, especially Catholic Christians. French support of this and missionary activities resulted in the expansion of French in the country (beyond that of merely catholics, due to the weakness of French educational facilities in the country otherwise). Resultantly, the curriculum of French religious schools changed, pushing religion to the side and making exceptions for "heretics", to allow in Jews and Orthodox.

The Apogee

Ironically, the most physical and long-lasting testament to this French influence, the Suez Canal, would also be the downfall of direct French political influence in Egypt and would mark the beginning of the end of Egypt as an independent country. Under the Egyptian leader Isma'il Pasha, Egypt had profited tremendously from the American Civil War, where its cotton had flourished in the vacuum of the absence of American supplies. Extensive - and expensive - undertakings in a variety of modernization and industrialization projects had been undertaken off of the gains from these. Of these, the Suez Canal - financed by French, British, and Egyptian investment, and built by French technological know-how - would be one of the most prominent. A brilliant success in direct terms and profitable for its European investors, for the Egyptian government, although not directly a loss, the canal would be only marginally profitable and monetarily it represented a loss compared to other investments. With Egyptian debt mounting from its variety of investment projects, Egypt would first have to sell its share in the canal to the English at a pittance, and increasing European control over the country bought with the influence that their investments entailed in the Urabi revolt, leading to Isma'il's abdication, and a spiral of internal unrest that ultimately led to British occupation in 1882. This crisis would result in an English occupation of the country which would last under 1922, and English influence over the nation which would persist until 1952.

The French language continued to maintain its august status in Egypt despite this. In 1937 in Cairo, among foreign publications, 5 were published in English and 45 in French among a total of 65. Among foreign primary and secondary schools, around half of the students attended French schools, for around 20,000-35,000 students. The number of native Egyptians grew in numbers in this, from 53% in 1921-1922 to 62% in 1930-1931 and to 75% in 1939-1940. Greek or Italian schools, the next largest groups of schools, principally concentrated among their nationals, and French schools also tended to have a higher proportion of women, more effective in language diffusion. Furthermore, during the inter-war period, notices from the royal family, train and taxi timetable information, French-Egyptian civil courts, and other legal documents continued to be issued in French, and English attempts to introduce English into the legal system never succeeded. Business, and science organizations would also use French as their language, as would Egyptian customs. Alexandria's municipal council deliberated in French, as did the legislative commission, while Statistics published in it, and the medical and maritime services used it often. During the time of the English occupation, even proclamations to Egyptian ministries were made in French.

Egyptian independence which came in 1922 would also favor French in some ways, as it removed the influence of English to some extent in the country, and the newly independent Egyptian government increased the education (which been in general heavily curtailed by the English, who had reduced the number of secondary schools from 25 in 1882 to 3 by 1906) and usage of French : in the secondary government schools in 1922 there were only 20 professors teaching French but there were 152 in 1928. Furthermore education in French was extended across the entire secondary cycle, reducing the role of English, increasing the number of students studying French from 1,221 in 1924-1925 to 7,684 for 1925-1926. Thus for French, the interwar was its final heyday, when it had achieved a status of a second language among much of the educated Egyptian classes, Although English started to nip at its heels and Arabic began the process of imposing itself as the national language.

A postage stamp in Arabic and French issued in 1897.
A postage stamp in Arabic and French issued in 1897.

Decline and Present

French had survived despite the British conquest of the country for more than sixty years (although some of the initial omens of decline began to emerge with the nationalist turn in Egypt in the 1920s as well as English policy which began to anglicize in the country in the 1920s and 1930s); conversely, its status would fall precipitously under the newly re-independent Egypt after just more than twenty. Many of the minority communities in Egypt, such as Jews or Christians, would be reduced in numbers or exiled by the newly independent Egypt, striking at groups which were the most francophone. A heavy blow came to French influence in Egypt in 1956, when France participated in the Suez Crisis, launching an attack on Egypt alongside Israel and England, in response to the Egyptian nationalization of the Suez Canal. French forces won an easy military victory, but politically the invasion was disastrous, with France and England isolated upon the international scene, with even their American ally - which controlled the nuclear umbrella which protected them from the USSR - abandoning them. The Egyptian leader, Nasser, would not only be not evicted from power, but would be strengthened and would gain legitimacy. France and England would both lost in influence in Egypt, and England’s hollowness as an independent actor was exposed to the entire world, marking a decisive end of its empire, and its new status as a de-facto American colony.

Despite this, French did not immediately fade away. Egyptian diplomats would still continue in their usage of French, and it would be thanks to them that the peace treaties between Israel and its neighbors after their various wars would continue to have official French translations. While French might have lost some of the prestige which it had held, it would continue to be taught, perhaps with greater efficiency, under the new regime. It would take under the Anwar Sadat regime that French would begin to decline most rapidly, as the turn towards the US and the creation of the American university of Cairo began to lead towards the Anglification of the country.

To speak of such a tale of decline also brings a corollary; it does not mention the word fall. The French language has been reduced greatly in importance in Egypt, where it was once the second language of the country, but it is not entirely gone. Egypt continues to be a member of the Francophonie, and a French press continues to exist in the country. Some 45,000 students study French in "bilingual" schools, as a first language, while as an L2 language, some 1.7 million Egyptians study French. The number of students studying French has been increasing, and a French university was founded in Egypt in 2002, joining the University Senghor established in 1990. Diminished perhaps, the French language is not vanished from the banks of the Nile.


Doha, Chia. "La francophonie en Egypte : Aperçu historique." Cahiers de l'Association internationale des études françaises 56 (2004): 67-73

Doss, Madiha. "Le français en Egypte. Histoire et présence actuelle." Cahiers de l'Association internationale des études françaises 56, (2004): 75-98

Gérard, Delphine."Le choix culturel de la langue en Égypte : La langue française en Égypte dans l’entre-deux-guerres." Les langues en Egypte 27/28 (1996) 253-284

Ibrahim, Helmy, Amr. "1798-1976. Le français référentiaire des élites égyptiennes." Documents pour l’Histoire du Français Langue Étrangère ou Second 38/39 (2007): 131-147

© 2017 Ryan Thomas


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