25 June 2022

Saturday, 12:14


New rivals in the former African colonies challenge Paris



In September, French President Emmanuel Macron made a few sarcastic remarks about Algeria, which caused heated discussions and tension between the two states. In fact, it is not the attitude of the leader of one sovereign country towards another one that caused the discontent, but the emotional component of such behaviour associated with the bitter legacy of Algeria’s colonial era.

Some experts assume that this is how Algeria is trying to completely break free from the cultural and political influence of France. However, not everything is as simple as it seems.


Traditional enemy

It all happened on September 30 when Mr. Macron met with the descendants of the veterans of the Algerian war. The French leader questioned the Algerian statehood and accused the authorities of the former colony of rewriting history. In particular, he said that since 1962, after Algeria gained its independence, a "cult of hatred towards France" has been cultivated in the country. According to Mr. Macron, Algeria had no statehood and was under the colonial rule of the Ottoman Empire, whose contemporary heir, Turkey, is doing its best to erase this period of colonial rule from the memory of the Algerians and even succeeded in doing so. The French president was also condemned for having called the French colonial occupation of Algeria only a "mistake".

These statements triggered a wave of anger among the Algerians, who view them as interference in internal affairs and an attempt to hide the genocide of local tribes committed by French colonial troops. Administration of the President of Algeria issued a statement where Mr. Macron’s statements are referred to as "an unbearable attack on the memory of 5,630,000 brave martyrs who sacrificed their lives in heroic resistance to the French colonial invasion, as well as the glorious national liberation revolution of 1830-1962."

The mutual reproach significantly deteriorated the relations between the two countries. Algeria was the first to recall its ambassador in Paris for consultations. Later, the country's government closed the airspace to French military aircraft.

In turn, the French government tightened visa requirements for citizens of Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco, which further damaged bilateral relations. In response, the French ambassador to Algeria was invited to the country's Foreign Ministry.

The tensions also increased the volume of mutual allegations. General Staff of the Algerian Army demanded that Paris provide maps of nuclear test facilities in Algeria used by the French in the 1960s. Minister of Labour, Employment and Social Welfare of Algeria, Djaboub El-Hashim, called France "the eternal and traditional enemy" of Algerians.


Historical truth

Apparently, historical heritage or the French colonial past of Algeria is not the only reason that drastically worsened relations between France and its former colony. Undoubtedly, a number of ongoing events, which we will mention below, also contributed to this mess.

But first let us consider the formal motive of dissatisfaction, since both the French and Algerians often appeal precisely to historical past in an attempt to explain the reasons for their dissatisfaction. By the way, France by no means voluntarily renounced its colonial claims. Vietnam and many of the African colonies of France gained independence only after a series of fierce wars. Algeria, perhaps, is the most striking example of such a struggle. Part of the Ottoman Empire since the 16th century, Algeria was invaded by France in the 1830s. Obviously, the rather long period of French colonisation (about 130 years) cannot be called a happy period of the country’s history.

In 1847, the Ottomans recognised the French occupation of Algeria. Since then, thousands of French have migrated to Algeria. In parallel, the Algerians resisted the French occupation. Protests against the French colonial regime, especially during World War II, were brutally suppressed by the French army. Bloody events that took place after the war are considered genocide against the Algerian people.

The November 1, 1954  armed rebellion and the subsequent development of the movement for the independence of Algeria entered a new phase four years later, on September 19, 1958, when the Republic of Algeria proclaimed independence in Cairo, Egypt. The armed struggle ended on March 18, 1962 with the conclusion of the Evian Accords. In the July 1, 1962 referendum, 91% of Algerians voted for independence, and Algeria officially became an independent country.

But it was very difficult to achieve balance in Franco-Algerian relations, that is—between the bitter consequences of the bloody colonial past and the accompanying struggle for independence and 130 years of historical ties, common history and a period of coexistence, which made it necessary to continue these relations even after Algeria gained independence. Attempts by France to maintain its military-political and diplomatic influence on the newly independent African colonies occasionally cause a cold snap and even tension in relations between the countries.

However, serious efforts have been made in recent years to reduce the French influence in Algeria, which is a matter of concern in Paris. Specifically, the administration of the incumbent President Abdelmadjid Tebboune, who succeeds his late predecessor Abdelaziz Bouteflika after he resigned after a series of mass popular protests. Thus, many French companies have already suspended their activities in Algeria. One of them was operating the Algerian metro but had to suspend  operations after the Algerian government decided to had over the business to one of the local companies.

French companies enjoyed special privileges in Algeria during the twenty-six-year rule of President Bouteflika. Thus, they operate in many sectors of the national economy, including construction and manufacturing. Algeria currently has about 40 French companies in the petroleum and automotive industries, as well as in the production of drinking water and wind energy. But they also understand that the Tebboune government will soon cancel their privileges.


New allies

Algeria is moving closer to Turkey along with China and Russia. In recent years, one could observe a noticeable increase in the activity of all three countries has been throughout the African continent. China is investing heavily in many African countries. The increasing development of relations between China and Algeria has been observed in the past two years. Interestingly, the ambassadors of Algeria and China issued a joint statement condemning the French TV channel FR24 for disinformation about China's alleged large-scale medical assistance to Algeria to combat the coronavirus pandemic. Algeria has joined the New Silk Road project and is seeking to establish a strategic alliance with China.

All these events take place amid the cooling relations between Algeria and France. For example, if earlier Algeria satisfied its needs for wheat purchasing it mainly from France, in recent years the country has increased the import of this grain product from Russia. Energy cooperation between the two countries has also expanded, including the supply of natural gas.

In recent years, Turkey has been expanding ties with the Muslim African countries. Ankara is interested in relations with Algeria, realizing its strategic importance among the rest of North African countries. Apparently, this is a mutual cooperation. This summer, the President of Algeria released a statement, which said that Turkey had invested $5 billion in the country. This figure is growing rapidly. Approximately the same amount is the volume of trade turnover between the two countries. Interestingly, during the Bouteflika rule, relations between Turkey and Algeria were much weaker, given that the Algerian government never ratified economic and trade documents with Turkey. Now relations between Ankara and Algeria are developing rapidly; not least thanks to the interest of the Algerians themselves.

It is noteworthy that all these events take place in parallel with the worsening relations between France and Turkey. France considers Algeria and other former African colonies in its own sphere of influence. Eventually, the emergence of new players in the region, especially the so-called return of Turkey, which competes with France in Africa and the Middle East, to Algeria, is an irritating factor for Paris.

Algeria is one of the largest countries in North Africa in terms of its territory. It also accounts for most of the African Mediterranean coast. In addition, Algeria is the third largest gas supplier to the EU after Russia and Norway. Currently, 41% of Algerian exports are crude oil, 18% - refined products and 32% - natural gas. At the same time, Algeria is one of the closest energy suppliers to Europe. In other words, there is a serious reason to be concerned about both geopolitical and economic interests.

Obviously, the current situation is not entirely related to Algeria’s historical past. Either way, one should analyse the ongoing events through both the bitter historical heritage of this North African country and the increasing regional competition for it. France should face historical realities, recognise them, give an objective assessment of the historical events in relations with its former colonies and, most importantly, return to equal cooperation with them. Otherwise, without refusing to leave the heavy burden of the former colonial era behind, it will be much more difficult for France to compete with new and strong players.

Of course, the current situation does not go unnoticed in France. President Macron's statements about the historical mistakes of France, in particular, his words about the murder of 300 Algerians on the banks of the Seine on October 16, 1961, only confirms that the French government is aware of the new circumstances and the importance of recognising historical facts. We need to wait for some time and monitor the ongoing political conjuncture to see how effective the French will be in expressing their regret over their past deeds, given the appearance of new and ambitious actors in the region.