France’s position on what is happening in Algeria is incredible given its silence regarding the popular and widespread anger over President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s nomination for the forthcoming election. Concerned political circles are following what is occurring in the country very closely.
The political class in France, led by President Emmanuel Macron, are aware of the 82-year-old Algerian leader’s health, not least because he has been nominated for a fifth presidential term while he is in Geneva for medical treatment. Everyone knows that Bouteflika can no longer rule because of his deteriorating condition and that he is not only bedridden but also unable to meet any official visitors or appear before his people.
It is well known that Algeria is currently ruled by a group that locals call the “political-financial mafia” with a few military men who are not the veterans who Bouteflika forcibly retired when he took office. This group of officers and businessmen are playing a political role with Bouteflika’s brother Saïd and have not been able to agree on another candidate. This has led to the people demanding the end of a corrupt regime that did not give young Algerians job opportunities or a promising future in a rich country, the wealth of which has been wasted on the interests of this clique.
Macron is also following the Algerian situation closely, and has asked his ambassador in Algeria to go to Paris to brief him. The ambassador is one of the few diplomats to be reappointed in the country. The reason for France’s reservations about making any statement on a specific intervention is the history between the two countries; the France-Algeria relationship is very sensitive. The Algerian people and leadership often accuse France of being the root cause of a number of their problems. The logic of this “French conspiracy” is also prevalent regarding many events in Algeria and even political appointments. Any French intervention while protests are taking place would be viewed as such a conspiracy.
The truth of the matter is that Algeria’s stability is a priority for French officials because it is a neighbour. If there is instability in the North African country, there would be millions of Algerians ready to move to France. If we recall the first visit made by the former French President Jacques Chirac to his friend President Abdelaziz Bouteflika after the earthquake that struck Algeria in 2003, Algerians chanted “Chirac, visa, visa” when he toured the Bab El Oued neighbourhood with his Algerian counterpart. They were demanding visas to go to France.
Algeria and France have a love-hate relationship, and the Algerians doubt all of France’s intentions. However, the first thing they aspire to do is visit France, read French newspapers, watch French television and eat French food and cheese. Even now, they are inspired by the Yellow Vest protests in France. They have doubts regarding the centrality of Algeria’s stability to France, but Paris is aware that the Algerian army is a key partner in the fight against terrorism in Mali, Niger and Libya. France is also interested in maintaining the bilateral relationship with its neighbour, as Algeria is an important provider of natural gas and it imports a lot of goods from its ex-colonial power.
Most importantly, the French fear radical Islamists who were “anesthetised” when Bouteflika took power and conducted the so-called national reconciliation. These Islamists could join the youth movement and use it to sabotage the state and cause instability. There are over 2 million French citizens of Algerian descent in France, and the community, which has been fully integrated into French society, follows and cares about what is going on in their country of origin. More dangerous than this is the fact that there are terrorists who committed atrocities in France in the name of Islam and the majority of them are from North Africa, notably Algerians, Moroccans and Tunisians. There is no doubt that unstable conditions in Algeria benefit the extremists. This concern remains in the minds of the French ruling class, which does not wish to see chaos in Algeria.
However, the Algerian military and ruling clique insisted on Bouteflika’s candidacy to protect their own interests, despite the fact that is was possible to overcome their differences and agree on a more convincing candidate for a nation dissatisfied with the spectre of the long-serving President. This prompted the demonstrators to rise up against the regime, because they are aware that the regime is ruling not Bouteflika. The situation in which Algeria finds itself today is thus of interest because its stability is a priority for France.
This article first appeared in Al-Hayat on 5 March 2019
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.