Young and brimming with enthusiasm, the then presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron created shock waves when he visited Algeria earlier this year and described France’s 132-year colonial period boldly as a “crime against humanity”. Ten months later, France’s youngest-ever President adopted a more traditional conciliatory tone during his 12 hour “friendly” visit to the former colony, where he advocated “turning the page” and “building a new relationship” instead of being “hostage to the past”.
Falling short of the official apology many were hoping for in the spirit of the 39-year old’s previous strong statements, Macron made some concessions by expressing his “readiness” to see France repatriate the skulls of Algerian resistance fighters killed in the 1850s, and held at the Musée de l’Homme in Paris. He also said that he will release previously withheld war archives.
Reiterating that his generation should not be blamed for the country’s history, Algerians of the same generation facing the consequences of low oil prices, high unemployment, austerity and general political uncertainty, are unlikely to take easily to Macron’s call to look to the future with hope. Contrasting their own ailing president, who has been confined to a wheelchair since 2013, with the fresh-faced French leader representing their hopes and dreams, is another stark reminder that the grass on the other side of the Mediterranean is much greener for young Algerians desperately seeking visas.
Money does the talking
Relations between the two countries have been shaky since Algeria’s independence in 1962, and have been marred by mutual suspicions, misunderstandings and mistrust fuelled by the opposing responses to their shared history.
Under President Jacques Chirac in 2005, a historic treaty of friendship seemed reachable, but a draft law praising the “positive” aspects of colonialism derailed that. Things worsened under Nicolas Sarkozy, with reconciliatory hopes pinned on economic relations, a route that Macron will also be undertaking. President François Hollande’s visit to Algiers in 2012 was lauded as a new chapter in re-establishing Franco-Algerian relations on a more equitable footing by the creation of new channels for bilateral interactions through the establishment of committees and forums.
Strengthening economic ties between the two countries has progressed since 2012 when China became Algeria’s primary trading partner. Due to the sharp increase in Chinese imports, France accounts for only 10 per cent of Algeria’s trade, compared with 24 per cent in 2000. Despite losing its position as a primary trading partner, France remains Algeria’s top foreign employer and investor, with nearly 500 French companies based in the country and tens of thousands of Algerians employed by them.
Favouring greater investment in Algeria is the consensus of the French government to contest the decline in Franco-Algerian trade, to which the North African state, traditionally reluctant to encourage foreign investment, will need to be more open if it wants to diversify its tepid economy. Setting out a positive agenda for the next five years, Macron will be seeking further strategic convergence between Paris and Algiers in revitalising Algeria’s automotive industry, digital economy, renewable energies and agriculture by working with the EU to modernise its public services and engage with the private sector. A major Peugeot plant announced last month, for example, was lauded for being a step in the right direction, despite the number of delays as negotiations ensued.
The economic outlook in Algeria, though, makes plans for investment complicated. The reluctance of many European companies to invest in Algeria is linked to the country’s restrictive economic regulations and widespread nepotism that saw the dismissal of former Prime Minister Abdelmadjid Tebboune when planned reforms threatened the interests of influential businessmen close to the presidency. His successor, Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia, is now orchestrating economic plans that will avoid friction with the business elite but massive inflation is a certainty.
France has also been observing closely the health of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika and the debates within the power oligarchy about his successor in the likelihood of a premature end to his term before 2019. With four million people of Algerian origin residing in France, any political instability across the Mediterranean is likely to have ramifications for Paris, whose best interests lie in a rapid solution to Algeria’s political and economic stagnation provoked by a period of falling oil revenues.
As well as stronger economic ties, greater security cooperation with important regional players like Algeria is essential for France and the EU. With its military capabilities and counterterrorism expertise, Algeria has proven itself to be an important strategic regional security player in neighbouring Libya and in preventing the surge of Islamist fighters in the turbulent Sahel region, where around 4,000 French troops are based close to the Algerian border. According to Ouyahia, Algeria has already spent $50 million more in support of security efforts in the Sahel sub-region than the EU.
Both Algiers and Paris have avoided the use of military power to solve regional issues. Algeria’s staunch non-interventionist policy and cooperation with France, the US and other regional states has proved highly useful for intelligence and coordinating effectively in securing its shared borders.
However, suspicion of France’s growing influence in the region and fears of Algeria’s regional leadership in the Sahel being undermined has concerned Algiers. France’s counterterrorism efforts in cooperation with Burkina Faso, Niger, Chad, Mali and Ivory Coast, and its backing for intra-Sahel coordination through the G5 Sahel Joint Force launched in July — in which Algeria was not invited to participate — have only added to growing tension.
Strategically, closer relations with the EU will help ease Algiers’ concerns of increasing French dominance in the region. Informal dialogues, like the one held between Algiers and the EU last month in Brussels on regional security and terrorism, will provide Macron with a productive means for Europe to gain an acceptable foot in future Sahel security discussions without suspicions of a returning imperial dominance in the region.
The weight of the past defining the future
Despite the strategic advantages of economic proximity, the weight of history continues to dominate bilateral relations. In February 2010, when former Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner declared that things would get simpler once the “generation of Algeria’s independence still in power” is gone, Algerians decried French interference in their domestic affairs despite the truth behind Kouchner’s words.
In Algeria, both state and society are unified in their collective memory of France’s whitewashing of its quasi-genocide. In France, though, the official policy dictated by both the right and the left is the willingness to forget the past in order to go on living; this is rhetoric influenced by the safety of the amnesty laws.
The question of recognition, however, has been exploited by various parties in both France and Algeria for their national interests. In France’s political scene, the objective in refusing to honour requests for recognition and apologies is to appeal primarily to the far-right electorate; in Algeria, the question of historical memory is used to divert French criticism towards the regime and preserve the ruling elite’s historical legitimacy despite being far removed from the needs of the current post-war generation.
France’s colonial chapter in Algeria is anything but history, which is why an apology from France is unlikely to have a measurable effect in relieving Algerian sentiments, excusing governmental failures or reflecting contemporary issues in French society. The weight of coming to terms with the face of its true colonial “legacy”, though, is a pressure that Algiers is unlikely to relinquish, although it will weaken with the effect of French money.
Stronger economic ties and greater cooperation will only prove successful in the quest for normalisation once France is able to move beyond suspicions of regional neo-imperialistic ambitions and recognise that the past must be addressed. This is essential before present issues can be remedied and the future begins to look more positive.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.