Former diplomat Mohamed Larbi Zitout, an official in the Algerian opposition movement, Rachad, has said that the main reason for French President Emmanuel Macron's attack on Algeria is the situation in Mali. There is a reluctance on the part of the generals in Algeria to send their own troops in, and it is believed that they have helped to introduce Russia's Wagner mercenaries in Mali, which threatens France's interests in Africa.
In an interview with Arabi 21, Zitout explained that French moves against Algeria are nothing new. What is new is that they are coming from the head of state, when official propaganda in Algeria has been saying Macron is our friend.
"Of course," explained Zitout, "we cannot ignore the context of statements made a few months before the presidential election, where Macron faces right-wing extremists, including Marine Le Pen and Eric Zemmour, who are competing to see who can attack French Muslims the most, especially those from the Maghreb and Algeria."
Zitout said that Macron's attack on Algeria and his questioning of its history, as well as his defence of his country's colonial rule, is down to several controversial issues. Some of these are fleeting, such as undocumented Algerian immigrants living in France, whom the government plans to return to Algeria. Others are more serious, such as the situation in Mali.
The latter, he believes, is the main reason for Macron's attack on the Algerian regime. "What happened is that [General Saïd] Chengriha went to Moscow with some of the generals who are closer to Russia than him, because they were taught by the Russians. Moscow's proposal is that Russia should occupy [Mali] first through the Wagner mercenaries, and then the Russian army will go in, as it did, for example, in Syria. Despite their rivalry, Russia played a major role with the Turks in expelling the French from Libya, just as the Russians expelled the French from Central Africa. The latest Russian expansion in Mali is seen as a disaster in France."
Mali means a lot to the French because of its strategic location, the ex-diplomat pointed out. Southern Mali is linked to West Africa, adjacent to Niger, Mauritania, Senegal, Guinea, Cote d'Ivoire and Burkina Faso. There are many conflicting interests in these countries. France, for example, extracts half of its military and civilian uranium needs from Niger.
"There is a major struggle going on in Niger. A French company called Areva is even more important to Franch than military aircraft and battleships, because it brings the uranium needed for civil and military use." Moreover, the Francophone countries and their neighbours have precious metal reserves, "the least precious of which is gold."
According to Zitout, France is aware that a group within the Algerian regime, led by Chengriha, helped to persuade the Malian military to bring in Wagner mercenaries. "This provides a service to the Russians, who said that they are willing to grant Algeria further financial facilities. The presence of the mercenaries in Mali relieves French pressure on the Algerian army, which invokes its unwillingness to engage with armed elements in other countries." Mali, he added, was the breaking point for Macron, because the Russian presence in Mali was made easier by Chengriha and those around him.
There is a split within the army leadership in Algeria. General Mohamed Kaidi, believes Zitout, is close to the French and the Americans, while Chengriha is close to the Russians. "However, Macron deliberately wanted to mislead everyone with his defence of [Algerian President Abdelmadjid] Tebboune, while he actually defends Kaidi and those with him more in his proposals."
There are more than 200,000 illegal Algerian migrants in France. The French government has said that it is going to deport more than 8,000 Algerians who they deem to be both illegal and dangerous. The Algerian regime stipulated that France must also extradite Algerian opposition individuals. This was not accepted by the French, because their laws prevent the extradition of political opponents. Hence, the regime in Algiers refused to accept the migrants deported from France, to which the French responded by reducing the number of visas granted to Algerians by 50 per cent.
As for the closure of Algerian airspace to French military aircraft, Zitout noted that the regime in Algiers has always denied its airspace to military aircraft that bomb Mali and West Africa. In this case, it is not closing the airspace to all military aircraft, but only to what it describes as "aircraft carrying out military missions"; in other words, bombing Mali and other African territories.
Zitout has daily programmes on YouTube and Facebook. He has called on Algerians and those interested in the history of Algerian-French relations to re-read the history of France's colonisation of Algeria and re-discover the crimes committed by the colonisers against the Algerian people, which he described as "heinous".
French newspaper Le Monde reported statements by Macron on Saturday in which he accused the Algerian regime of "fuelling hatred of France." He also challenged the existence of an Algerian nation before the French colonisation began in 1830. "Was there an Algerian nation before French colonisation?" asked the French president, who pointed out that "there were previous colonisations," a reference to the Ottoman Empire's presence in Algeria between 1514 and 1830.
"I am fascinated to see Turkey's ability to make people totally forget the role it played in Algeria and the domination it has exercised, and to explain that we are the only colonisers," said Macron. "It's great. Algerians believe it."
He claimed that Turkey is disseminating "disinformation and propaganda" against his country with regard to the history of the pre-1962 era. The French leader said that his country should produce Arabic and Berber publications to counter the material condemning France.
Macron's statements were condemned by the Algerian presidency. The ambassador in Paris was recalled for consultation. This happened before Algeria announced the closure of its airspace to French military aircraft.
In January last year, members of the People's National Assembly in Algiers (the lower house of the Algerian parliament) presented a bill to criminalise the French colonisation of the country between 1830 and 1962. Two months later, those proposing the initiative called on the head of the National Assembly, Suleiman Shanin, to open a discussion on the proposed legislation prior to a vote. A previous attempt in this respect failed in 2009.
An estimated five million Algerians were killed during the colonial period in Algeria. At least 1.5m were killed during the war of independence between 1954 and 1962. Thousands remain missing. France used the Algerian desert to test its nuclear bombs, contaminating the countryside.