Rendezvous with history? Algeria and France inch forward

The pain of the past cannot be forgotten, and a formal French apology may yet transpire, as the two countries’ leaders look set to meet to discuss matters of trade, energy security, and 1960s nuclear tests.

French President Emmanuel Macron (L) and Algeria's President Abdelmadjid Tebboune at the presidential palace in Algiers during Macron's three-day visit in August 2022.
French President Emmanuel Macron (L) and Algeria's President Abdelmadjid Tebboune at the presidential palace in Algiers during Macron's three-day visit in August 2022.

Rendezvous with history? Algeria and France inch forward

In April 1827, a French consul got into an argument with the ruler of Algiers, who then allegedly swiped the Frenchman across the face with a fly whisk.

The incident has gone down in history since it is believed to have triggered the French invasion and colonisation of Algeria, which was to last a century.

Today, things are a little different. France needs Algeria’s gas and has been keen to sign a deal with Algiers (as have other European countries, like Italy). Yet the relationship is complicated, to say the least.

In an interview with Algerian media broadcast on Saturday night, Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune described his upcoming meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron as “a rendezvous with history”.

The comment, which will have been heard in Paris, triggered much talk about what issues, demands, and concessions will be discussed between the two leaders, but most suspect that Algeria will want some form of apology for the past.

French President Emmanuel Macron (L) and Algeria's President Abdelmadjid Tebboune attend a meeting at the VIP lounge of the airport in Algiers on 25 August 2022.

Pain of the past

For Algerians, the pain and suffering at the hands of the French is still vivid, the pair having fought each other in Algeria’s war of independence from 1954-62.

Estimates vary hugely, but between 350,000 and 1.5 million Algerians died, as did around 30,000 French soldiers. Tens of thousands more were injured on both sides.

The phrase Tebboune used was not accidental. It conveys the visit's significance as a milestone moment in Algeria-France relations.

Professor Abdulghani Dandan, head of politics at the University of Guelma in Algeria, thinks it hints at historical ties, diplomatic breakthroughs, or significant agreements.

The visit could symbolise reconciliation and progress, even a new chapter in bilateral relations, indicating its symbolic importance. Culturally, it could facilitate exchanges, cooperation, and collaboration.

France needs Algeria's gas and has been keen to sign a deal with Algiers, yet the relationship is complicated, to say the least.

Furthermore, trade deals expected to be signed during the visit could have profound economic implications for both nations.

Long memories

The Algerian president's state visit has been repeatedly postponed owing to disagreements between the two sides.

Tebboune has suggested a pragmatic approach: "We will assess matters objectively, devoid of emotion. We find ourselves at a juncture of rebuilding relations between our two countries."

However, he is also aware of the weight of history and of the terrible war crimes that occurred throughout the French occupation of Algeria.

This included the well-documented use of torture, including rape, electric shocks, waterboarding, burning, hanging by feet or hands, and sleep deprivation.

Battling Algerian guerrillas, the French bombed and burned an estimated 8,000 villages, displacing two million Algerians. Many were sent to camps or forced into labour.

In 2021, Macron launched a 'Memories and Truth' commission on France's role in Algeria "to look clearly at the wounds of the past". Macron has previously called colonisation "a crime against humanity".

People hold a banner and Algerian flags during a rally to commemorate the brutal repression of an Oct 17, 1961 demonstration during which at least 120 Algerians were killed during a protest to support Algerian independence.

Tebboune said Algeria "will not disregard" the memory of conflict, "nor will we shirk our responsibilities towards the righteous martyrs, be they from the national resistance or the heroic liberation revolution".

Chance to say sorry

Algeria is seeking an "explicit apology" from Macron for the crimes of colonialism before the conclusion of his presidential term.

Dandan said Algeria aimed to use its leverage to make diplomatic progress on issues concerning the conflict, the condemnation of colonialism, and an official apology.

Algerian leaders do not want to miss the opportunity, given that the next French presidential elections may result in a far-right nationalist party winning the Elysee Palace. Should they do so, bilateral relations may take a hit.

Tebboune has previously said that the political class in France opposes any reconciliation between the two nations.

"France is unlikely to issue an explicit apology for the atrocities of French colonialism," said Rafik Bouchich, a professor of political science at the University of Batna in Algeria, speaking to Al Majalla.

Bouchich said apologies were admissions of liability and typically preceded compensation to Algeria.

In 2021, Macron launched a 'Memories and Truth' commission on France's role in Algeria "to look clearly at the wounds of the past".

Nuclear tests

From 1960-66, France tested 17 nuclear weapons in the Algerian Sahara, exposing local populations (including the Tuareg population) to high levels of radioactivity.

Kahi Mabrouk, a professor of politics at the University of Ouargla in Algeria, said: "Current discussions may not revolve around concessions but rather consensus and understanding on numerous issues, notably those related to national memory and the tragic war of national liberation."

Mabrouk said both presidents had agreed to form committees to address these matters, recognising that it was of sacred significance to Algerians and could not be bypassed.

It is also significant that the two leaders will address the issue of French nuclear testing and radiation victims, which Algeria's army chief has raised concerns about.

The French not only classified their radiation tests; they also classified the exact locations of the tests. To this day, the sand remains radioactive.

Algerians want a map of the buried nuclear waste so they can start to clean up the affected areas, protect the local population, and compensate those affected.

Trade and investment

In terms of trade, Algeria's biggest exports by far are oil and gas. Between 2017-21, the biggest market for Algerian exports was Italy, while Algeria imported most from China.

France aims to regain its position in the Algerian market, where trade exceeded $5bn last year.

Paris cannot match Beijing for financial firepower, however. Between 2005 and 2020, China invested $23.8bn in Algeria, largely focused on transport and real estate.

Notable infrastructure examples include the East-West highway and the construction of the Grand Mosque in the heart of Algiers.

Still, Dandan said Tebboune's visit to Paris "marks a diplomatic triumph, underscoring Algeria's pivotal role in both regional and international arenas".

Dandan added that it had "the potential to bolster economic ties with France, spur job creation, and attract foreign investments".

Additionally, said Dandan, "a robust political agenda could amplify Algeria's influence in addressing pressing regional challenges like security threats and migration issues".

Outstanding issues

Another issue to be discussed is the national archives, returning these to the Algerian state and, likewise, the remains of Algerians killed in the conflict in France.

There is also the issue of visas. In 2021, Macron was dismissive of Algeria and cut the number of visas issued to its citizens (which prompted the Algerians to recall their ambassador and ban French flights from Algerian airspace).

Months later, in the summer of 2022, they appeared to have made up, with Macron visiting Algeria and saying the two states had "decided to open a new era".

Yet Algeria is increasingly frustrated by the ongoing reduction of its visa quota, which it sees as a unilateral decision that adversely impacts the mobility and presence of Algerian nationals in France.

Algeria is increasingly frustrated by France's ongoing reduction of its visa quota, adversely impacting the presence of Algerian nationals in France.

Each head of state's visit unfolds within a distinctive political framework shaped by the interplay of bilateral relations, regional dynamics, and global affairs.

The visit may coincide with specific bilateral or international issues that differ from those encountered during previous presidential visits, thus influencing its course.

Local political considerations in Algeria and France, such as public opinion or government priorities, can significantly impact the diplomatic context of the visit.

This is a period in which the geopolitical landscape is experiencing big shifts and developments affecting both parties and their neighbours.

These developments may cast a shadow over Tebboune's visit, adding further complexity to its diplomatic implications.

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