Gas, historical memory, Russia: Macron travels to Algeria to “refound” the relationship | International
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Today, for France, there is no bilateral relationship as complex and troubled as the one it maintains with Algeria. The memory of the crimes of colonialism and a bloody war of independence, some resentments and grievances that never end and, at the same time, the reality of two intimately intertwined societies are mixed. A year ago, Emmanuel Macron’s criticism of the political use of history by the Algerian authorities and the reduction of visas caused a crisis between the two countries. Macron travels to Algiers this Thursday to “refound” the relationship, as described, on the eve of the visit, by an aide to the French president.
Macron undertakes the trip at a time of global tensions in which Algeria enjoys new levers of influence. Because of its proximity to the Sahel in full French retreat. For its ability to sell gas to Europe in anticipation of the closure of Russian exports. And because of its historical proximity to Russia, today at war with Ukraine and also determined to assert its influence in the Mediterranean and the Sahel, areas that Paris considered its backyard for decades.
“France is afraid of losing its footing in the region, and for this reason it needs to get along with Algiers on strategic and security issues,” observes Algerian journalist Hacen Ouali. “The French do not see well the arrival with force of Russia in the region: they are not interested in leaving a vacuum.”
The visit, which will last until Saturday and will include a stage in Oran, has as its background a convoluted four-cushion billiards that is played on both shores of the Mediterranean. The thaw between Macron and his Algerian counterpart, Abdelmajid Tebún, coincides with the icy air in the Spanish-Algerian relationship after Spain, in an abrupt turn in its traditional line, approached the position of Morocco, Algeria’s historical rival, about Western Sahara.
Accompanied by a delegation of almost a hundred people (politicians, businessmen, artists, religious authorities, university students), Macron wants to take advantage of the trip to delve into what he calls the “reconciliation of memories”. He refers to the effort to overcome misgivings, derived from colonialism and war, between Algerians and French, and between French people of different origins. The reading of the common past is very different, sometimes antagonistic, depending on whether it is done from Algiers or Paris, or if it is done in France by a son of Algerian immigrants or a descendant of the pieds noirsEuropeans born in colonial Algeria who had to flee when independence was declared, whose 60th anniversary has just been celebrated.
“I would say that the political and protocol aspects of the visit, and the whole question of memory and history and reconciliation, are a little bit for the gallery”, considers the historian Pierre Vermeren, author of History of contemporary Algeria. “It seems to me that the justification for this three-day trip is strategic issues.”
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Vermeren adds: “On the one hand, Algeria is more fragile because it is a friend of the Russians: at the moment this is not very well seen, at least in the West. At the same time, thanks to this war the regime will have significant income, and the regime will come out financially, and also acquire a new role because it is a large gas exporter. He has new cards in hand.”
Macron will address Russian influence in Algeria and the Mediterranean with Tebun, according to the aforementioned source from the Elysée Palace, who requested anonymity. Also the gas supply, although the source assured that it is not the objective of the trip.
On the tensions between Spain and Algeria, and between Algeria and Morocco, the French source stated: “Obviously we want everything that can contribute to calm.”
Morocco’s King Mohammed VI in a recent speech urged countries he did not name to “clarify” their position on Western Sahara, a territory whose sovereignty Morocco claims, while Algeria supports supporters of independence. The monarch’s message was understood to be addressed to France, supposedly more ambiguous now than Spain about the Sahara. The Elysee responds: “We consider that the Moroccan autonomy plan is the basis for serious and credible discussions in view of a negotiated solution.”
In Morocco, “this visit [de Macron a Argelia] it is perceived very badly”, emphasizes Vermeren, and cites to illustrate it an article that the French-Moroccan writer Tahar Ben Jelloun has just published in the weekly Le Point. Ben Jelloun writes: “Morocco had become accustomed to privileged relations [con Francia]. Macron does not have a North African sensibility. However, he is obsessed with Algeria and thinks that he will be able to heal Franco-Algerian relations. We wish him good luck.”
Historically, France’s relationship with Morocco, a former protectorate that gained independence without war, has been less stormy than with Algeria. Macron, arriving at the Elysee in 2017, set out to end the memory conflict with Algeria. During a visit to Algiers in the middle of the electoral campaign, he declared that colonization had been a crime against humanity. Already in power, the young president, the first born after independence, recognized the role of the French State in the disappearance and murder in 1957 of the mathematician Maurice Audin, a militant for independence, and also in the torture and death, in the same year, of the Algerian lawyer Ali Boumendjel. Macron, advised by the historian Benjamin Stora, multiplied gestures and commemorations for the victims on both sides. For Algiers it was always insufficient. This whole process coincided with the popular revolt of the hirak and the tightening of the regime that diaspora organizations in France have denounced.
The relationship deteriorated in the fall of 2021 when Macron, in a meeting with young people of Algerian origin, charged against “the political-military system” that has governed Algeria since independence and argued that it “has been built on [la] memory income. That is to say, the use, by Algiers, of the grievances of the past to stir up hatred of France. The French president also questioned the existence of the Algerian nation before colonization. Algiers withdrew its ambassador from Paris and cut off airspace to French military planes going to Mali. In the same days, France announced that it was cutting annual visas for Algerian visitors by 50% (the measure also affected Moroccans). It was a retaliation for the difficulties that both Algiers and Rabat pose, according to Paris, to the repatriation of immigrants who are in an irregular situation in France.
Close to one in 10 French people has origins in Algeria, if you add the children and grandchildren of immigrants, of pieds noirs and of harkis (Algerian fighters who fought alongside France). Phenomena such as Islamism in the French suburbs or the rise of the extreme right of the Le Pen family — originally linked to groups opposed to independence — cannot be explained without Algeria.
Algeria is not exactly a foreign country in France, and vice versa. “For the French, Algeria is partly internal politics, and for Algeria, France too,” says the journalist Ouali.
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