Mideast

France’s Macron seeks to reset Algeria ties

French president Emmanuel Macron arrived in Algeria on Thursday for a three-day visit intended to smooth diplomatic tensions and reset a relationship marked by the charged history of France’s colonial rule and the fierce war that led to Algerian independence in 1962.

On arrival he laid a wreath at a monument for Algerians killed in the struggle for independence before a meeting with Abdelmadjid Tebboune, the Algerian president. Macron said the two countries “have a complex , painful common past. And it has at times prevented us from looking at the future.”

Tebboune described the visit as “promising” and “constructive”.

The French leader said the two governments would set up a joint committee of historians to study the archives of the colonial period.

Tensions erupted last year after Macron accused the Algerian government of “exploiting memory” of the colonial period and “rewriting of history” based not on facts but on discourse that depended on “hatred of France”. Macron asked if an Algerian state had existed before French colonisation, a rhetorical question many found offensive. Algeria recalled its ambassador in protest for three months.

Immigration has also been a sore point. France in October slashed the number of visas given to Algerians, Tunisians and Moroccans in response to what Paris saw as their refusal to take back illegal migrants. Since March, Algeria has issued temporary papers for about 300 of its citizens to allow them to be deported from France, up from only 17 last year and 91 in 2020, according to Elysée figures.

Security in neighbouring Mali, which is battling a jihadi insurgency, and in the Sahara is also expected to be on the agenda. France recently completed withdrawing its troops from Mali.

The French president is accompanied not only by his ministers of finance, interior, defence and foreign affairs, but also by a delegation of about 90 people that includes telecoms billionaire Xavier Niel, a French Olympic boxer Sarah Ourahmoune and novelist Kamel Daoud. The delegation’s varied composition points to a focus on soft power to heal tensions and renew a complex relationship often bristling with emotion yet underpinned by strong economic ties and the presence of a large Algerian diaspora in France.

Although Algeria is a big energy producer, the Elysée has said that new gas imports are not a focus of the visit, nor are big defence contracts expected. Macron’s schedule includes meetings with young Algerian entrepreneurs, a visit to a well-known record shop in the port city of Oran, the birthplace of Rai music, and attending a breakdance performance. An Elysée official said the “choice was made to orient this visit towards the future and therefore the start-ups, innovations, youth and new sectors”.

The two countries’ fraught history will be central. Macron has taken with him historian Benjamin Stora, son of a Jewish family that fled Algeria at independence. Stora wrote a report last year, commissioned by Macron, recommending steps needed for “reconciliation of memories” between Algeria and France to come to terms with colonial history.

But Nacer Djabi, sociology professor at the University of Algiers, said the French president would find it difficult to woo Algerians. Many would find it “psychologically difficult to move past” his comments. He added that Algeria felt itself to be in a position of strength vis-à-vis France, given increased demand for its gas.

Macron has made repairing the historical wounds between France and Algeria a priority since he was elected in 2017. He described colonialism as “a crime against humanity” but stopped short of apologising for France’s 130 years in Algeria. He became the first French leader to acknowledge publicly the state’s role in torture during the war that preceded independence.

Xavier Driencourt, who served as France’s ambassador to Algeria 2008-12 and 2017-20, said the elaborate visit was a sign of the importance of the bilateral relationship, but he questioned how much would be achieved.

“The French side may want to put some more positivity back in the relationship, but in my experience Algeria only responds when forced by the power dynamics,” he said. The visa issue linked to Algeria accepting its citizens whom France wants to deport remained “a very sensitive topic, and France is still waiting for results”. 

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