Summary: Emmanuel Macron carried off a charm offensive with Algeria’s President Tebboune securing a rapprochement that promises much but provides little in the way of concrete details.
The recent visit by French President Emmanuel Macron to Algeria generated a wealth of feel good declarations from Macron and his counterpart Abdelmajid Tebboune. It was, said the former, “a new page” while Tebboune spoke of “a positive dynamic” between him and the French leader. The two declared a “new, irreversible dynamic of progress” at the conclusion of the three day visit.
What a difference a year and a war in Ukraine has made. Last October the Algerian president withdrew his ambassador from Paris enraged by comments Macron had made in a meeting with 18 French youths of Algerian origin. The president told them: “The Algerian official history is not based on facts but rather on a discourse which, it must be said, is based on hatred of France.” The 76 year old Tebboune was “stuck in a harsh position” the 44 year old Macron patronisingly lamented. But what really outraged not just Tebboune but all Algerians was the French president musing “was there an Algerian nation before French colonisation?”
However all was apparently forgotten or forgiven as Macron led an impressive 90- strong delegation to Algiers, among them 6 cabinet ministers, business people, religious leaders, sporting figures, academics and artists. Intriguingly two-thirds of the delegation were French of Algerian descent. As our regular contributor Francis Ghilès noted in his recent Middle East Institute podcast the visit was “meant to be a seduction trip vis a vis the Algerian young” as well as a way of “speaking to the suburbs of France where there have been many social problems not just with people of Algerian origin but with people of Africa and North Africa generally.”
Although Macon’s office sought to play down the importance of energy (France draws about 17% of its gas from Russia and is less vulnerable than many other European countries) it was not a topic that could be ignored. Indeed, among his large entourage was the head of the French energy company Engie. Algeria has Africa’s largest reserves of natural gas and pipelines to both Spain and Italy so, as the Ukraine war drags on, it makes good sense and good politics for Macron to encourage friendly relations. For Tebboune, although he has to tread carefully lest he appear to cater too overtly to Algeria’s former colonial masters, capitalising on the opportunities the war provides to give a boost to the country’s near-moribund economy is an essential undertaking and one that improved relations with France will help to secure.
Also on the agenda were discussions about bringing stability to Libya, the threat of jihadist terrorism in the Sahel region and the vexed question of Western Sahara. And, of course, migration. Last year, Macron in an appeal to the right oversaw a reduction in visas for North Africans that amounted to a 50% cut. Talented young Algerians, particularly in the IT sector, are anxious to leave. If France were to ease restrictions it would prove a double-edged sword for Tebboune. On the one hand it creates a brain drain but on the other it means an easing of pressure on the government from the youth-driven Hirak movement, a campaign driven as much by lack of job opportunities as it is by calls for democracy.
However, amidst the glad-handing between the two, and the joint statement that concluded the visit there was conspicuously no mention of visas. Also not commented on was a high-level meeting between army chiefs of staff and security chiefs from the two countries where the Algerians repeated their demand for the release of maps showing the extent of nuclear contamination from the 1960s when France used Algeria as a testing ground for its nuclear bombs. The request was refused, a pattern that has persisted over several decades.
In 1960 France carried out a successful nuclear explosion in the Algerian Sahara and subsequently 17 more were conducted up until the end of 1966. (As part of the deal that ended the brutal 8 year independence war in 1962, France was allowed to continue its testing programme until 1967.) Despite repeated efforts to secure a full and detailed accounting of the extent of radioactive poisoning over the years since, the French have effectively stonewalled.
Macron’s decision last year to acknowledge to the people of French Polynesia that the nearly 200 tests France carried out there from 1966 -1996 were “not clean” was part of his charm effort to re-engage in the Pacific. He told the Polynesians: “For too long, the state has preferred to keep silent about this past. What I want to break today is this silence.” It is a statement Algerians, especially those poisoned by radioactivity, can only view with bitter irony as the youthful Macron and the aged Tebboune declared their bromance to the world with a joint declaration calling for a “new era” that “(laid)the foundation for a renewed partnership expressed through a concrete and constructive approach, focused on future projects and youth.”