Macron visits Algeria amid strained ties with former colony – POLITICO

ALGIERS – French President Emmanuel Macron will land in Algeria on Thursday – his first visit to the former colony in five years – in a bid to improve strained relations with the gas-rich nation as the EU struggles to diversify energy supplies away from Russia.

Issues such as security, economic ties and energy are high on the French president’s agenda, but it’s what he has to say about the country’s colonial past that is likely to hold the most attention. Warning. The Mediterranean nation was part of the French colonial empire for more than a century until it gained independence in 1962 following a war that took a heavy human toll and was characterized by a savage brutality, leaving a lasting mark on French politics and society.

Franco-Algerian relations hit rock bottom last year following Macron’s comments about Algeria’s alleged instrumentalization of past grievances. Algeria withdrew its ambassador in response, although the two nations have made progress in restoring ties since.

Much is at stake for the French president during his three-day visit, as France aims not only to normalize bilateral relations with Algeria, but also to save its sphere of influence in Africa as Russia and China are seeking to strengthen their alliances across the continent.

Friends and foes seem to have supplanted France as the country’s privileged partners. Algeria, one of the world’s top gas producers, signed a major energy deal with Italy last month and plans to hold joint military exercises in November with longtime ally Russia.

The visit will focus firmly on the « future » of the relationship, the Elysee Palace said at a press briefing on Tuesday, noting several upcoming meetings with Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune that do not focus on historical differences.

« The president has already worked a lot on the issues [of the colonial past]… We must continue to work on these subjects and the president wants it, but there are other subjects… there is the future, youth, new technologies, etc.

A sign that the French president is serious, the presidential delegation will include no less than six French ministers and several business leaders, including the boss of the energy company Engie Catherine MacGregor and the billionaire telecommunications magnate Xavier Niel.

But the pitfalls and opportunities for missteps will be plentiful for a French president who enjoys face-to-face meetings with ordinary citizens and isn’t shy about speaking his mind.

Macron’s choice of words about the colonial past will also be closely watched at home by the « Pied Noir » communities, descendants of French people repatriated from the colony who have their own grievances with the French state. Macron is visiting the city of Oran on Friday after calling earlier in the year for « the massacre » of « hundreds of Europeans, mostly French citizens » to be recognized there.

“Macron is taking a risk. Visiting Algeria, a former colony, is always a risky visit for a French president, and it’s an important year, it’s been 60 years since the end of Algeria’s war of independence, » says Hasni Abidi, political scientist at the University of Geneva.

« Macron wants to send a message, that he wants to go beyond history and open a new page in relations, » he said.

Re-establishing links with a former colony

Relations between France and Algeria soured last year when the French president was quoted as having made several inflammatory remarks about Algeria in the French press. Macron accused Algeria’s « military-political system » of rewriting history and encouraging « hate towards France ». He also wondered if Algeria existed as a nation before French colonization.

The comments infuriated the Algerian regime, which recalled its ambassador for several months.

The North African country gained independence from France following a brutal and protracted eight-year war that ended with the signing in March 1962 of the Evian Accords. French historians say half a million people died during the war, including 400,000 Algerians, while Algerian authorities say 1,500,000 lives were lost.

In July of the same year, 99.72% voted for independence in a referendum and Algeria finally broke the yoke of French colonial rule – but memories of the 132-year occupation still linger a cloud over Franco-Algerian relations.

Macron will face scrutiny on these issues after his comments sparked what Amar Mohand-Amer, a historian at a research center in Oran, called a « serious crisis ». At the time, Macron was accused of pandering to far-right voters ahead of the 2022 presidential election.

“What he says will be watched closely… I think he will make a statement on the colonial past to end the swings with Algeria. And then he will stop talking about these problems.

In his first term, the French president started with significant political capital in Algeria. During the campaign for the 2017 presidential election, Macron called France’s colonization of Algeria a « crime against humanity ».

As France’s first president born after Algeria’s war of independence, Macron made several bold statements and, although he refused to issue a formal apology, he took steps to address the country’s colonial past. France, such as the declassification of state archives and the commemoration of war victims.

But it remains to be seen whether ordinary Algerians will again show their support for Macron during his visit.

« A lot of Algerians don’t like Macron’s volte-face. We welcomed the candidate Macron who was brave and said colonization was a crime against humanity, » Mohand-Amer said.

“But five years later, he says colonial France created the Algerian nation. Its ambiguity offends people,” he said.

The French and Algerian governments have made little progress in resolving unresolved historic conflicts. Prominent Algerian-born historian Benjamin Stora was commissioned in 2020 by the French government to write a report on colonization, but his recommendations were largely ignored by Algeria.

“None of the recommendations have been implemented [on the Algerian side]whether it was initiating youth exchanges, working on war cemeteries, there was no answer,” said French historian Pierre Vermeren at Sorbonne University.

« There can be no Franco-Algerian cooperation on the past, if one of the two parties does not want to participate in it, » he said.

While Macron has made little progress in resolving historic differences with Algerians, he has nonetheless provoked outrage from France’s far-right National Rally, with a figure rejecting the Stora report as « a memorial war against French families ».

France’s sphere of influence is shrinking

Despite the lack of progress on historical issues, the Elysée now sees signs of a turning point in relations with the Algerian government.

French military planes are again allowed to fly in Algerian airspace after being banned last year, a move that helps military operations as France wraps up its anti-Islamist operation in the Sahel. A long-standing disagreement over the readmission of illegal immigrants to Algeria also appears to be resolved.

According to political scientist Hasni Abidi, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has changed the outlook not only for France, which seeks to diversify EU energy suppliers, but also for Algeria.

« Algeria has understood that it does not want to stay on the sidelines and appear as part of the Russian axis, it wants to work with the Western camp, » Abidi said.

“Gas and oil are the bread and butter of Algeria. He has seen how Russia has been ostracized by the international community and he wants to remain credible,” he added.

Algeria is already a gas supplier to France, and while the Elysée Palace warned that « no revolutionary agreement » would be announced during the trip, the increase in gas deliveries to Europe to compensate for the drop Russian deliveries will be at the center of the trip according to several observers.

“It is clear that Algeria has become more important on the energy front [for France]. But the Italians arrived first, the Ukrainian crisis was already serious in November last year and they started negotiations,” said energy expert Francis Ghilès of the CIDOB research center in Barcelona, ​​referring to a Agreement of 4 billion euros signed last month between Algeria and Italy.

« But looking beyond the Ukraine crisis, there are whole swathes of territory that are uncharted or could be re-explored, » he said.

Beyond the thorny questions of gas and security cooperation in the Sahel, France’s cultural influence is also at stake. In July, the Algerian president announced that primary schools would start teaching students English, a decision which could signal an abandonment of French, a language still used in the administration. Frustrated Algerian elites are dissuaded from traveling to France over visa issues and often prefer destinations such as Turkey or the Gulf States.

“But all is not lost for France. Algeria has shown it can diversify its partners, and I think the message was heard loud and clear in Paris,” Abidi said.

There are cards in Macron’s hand – a common history, a strong Franco-Algerian community, military cooperation – if he can play them well.

America Hernandez contributed reporting.


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