August 24, 2022
Sixty years after its independence, and as Algeria celebrated earlier this summer taking back control after its war of independence against direct French colonial rule, all the indications are that the weight of history, memories, emotions, and wounds remain tender on both sides.
On his second visit since becoming France’s political leader six years ago, President Emmanuel Macron hopes his meeting with Algerian counterpart Abdelmadjid Tebboune will put back on track the often dysfunctional relations with a nation that France ruled for 132 years.
The ties hit a new low recently when Macron questioned whether Algeria had existed as a nation before the French invasion. He accused its “political-military system” of rewriting history and fomenting “hatred toward France,” which led to a spike of media attacks, Algeria recalling its ambassador to France, and a reduction in the level of coordination and liaison in some bilateral spheres.
But this cooling in relations has been reversed and the atmosphere between the nations has warmed up again.
Many have said that despite the recurrent quarrels that have colored the two countries’ history since independence, Franco-Algerian relations have dual facets to them: The public one that receives negative media coverage and diplomatic tit for tat, and the military, security, intelligence, and business sector facet, that quietly gets on with the common agenda of the day unperturbed by the campaigns of hate.
High on the agenda of Macron’s visit, of course, are the permanent bilateral topics that deal with the means to put past events and memories of the colonial era and the war of independence and its aftermath to rest, through apologies, compensation, or a form of peace and reconciliation process that heals both sides, however elusive that process might be.
Algeria’s relations with France have always been problematic even in the best of days. With the Russian invasion of Ukraine and its political, economic, and energy sector repercussions, smoothing those relations has gained new impetus, as countries have scrambled again to redesign their geostrategic goals in view of the European boycott of Russian gas.
Macron’s visit might help get assurances, for example, that the Algerian Spanish pipeline continues transporting gas to Spain despite the friction between Madrid and Algiers concerning Spain siding with Morocco on the Western Sahara self-rule issue.
The EU currently receives only 11 percent of its gas needs from Algeria (47 percent from Russia), and it is unlikely that Algerian gas output could be increased to meet forthcoming winter demands in Europe.
France, though, hopes to gain new investment grounds in Algeria as Russia, a long-time trusted ally of Algeria, is likely to lose its economic leverage abroad generally due to economic sanctions and its war efforts. But for Macron it is also about attempting to counter China, a country that is becoming Algeria’s largest trading partner.
During his visit, Macron is due to push back against renewed Russian efforts at luring the country further into its orbit, as Algiers and Moscow have been working together through OPEC+.
The new Algerian president after the revolution (Hirak) of 2019-21, is to be feted by the Kremlin, with Russia’s Foreign Affairs Minister Sergey Lavrov recently extending him an invitation to try and renew Russian-Algerian “friendly and sincere” ties, as he described them. The Russians aim to extend links to encompass political, economic, and commercial areas, in addition to cultural and scientific cooperation and the long-standing military bonds.
All of a sudden Algeria is finding itself at a critical juncture in its history, poised to gain stature and prosperity if it plays its cards well.
The rise in oil and gas prices globally as a result of Russia’s war on Ukraine has automatically replenished the country’s coffers, and the world is hoping to court Algiers further since it sits on the third-largest oil reserves in Africa — after Libya and Nigeria — and is also strategically located, a stone’s throw away from European shores thirsty for its oil and gas.
Algeria is among the top 11 countries in terms of proven gas reserves globally, and, according to the US Energy Information Administration, sits on the third-largest recoverable shale gas resources after China and Argentina.
The International Monetary Fund reported that Algeria will this year earn more than $58 billion, money that would come in very handy for a government trying to restore and renew itself after the protest movements that toppled the previous regime.
Algeria has always tried to project itself as a reliable partner but this was limited to Italy and less so to France.
Algeria has always tried to project itself as a reliable partner, according to its official rhetoric, but this was limited to Italy and less so to France maybe due to the weight of the countries’ common history.
Macron’s four-day visit could be eying old and new avenues for long-term investment not only in fossil fuel projects but also in the renewable energy sphere. All overtures on the new leadership of Algeria could be subject to France being able to persuade it that it is time to leave the past to the past and look forward to recalibrating their relationship based on renewed common interests that could see both sides of the Mediterranean winning.
For the Algerian leadership, although France may perhaps be viewed as just another player, albeit one with a shared and often uncomfortable history, it remains a close trading partner and neighbor in the general balance of things in an era that is witnessing fragmentation of the global world order and uncertainties everywhere. The choices they embark on may influence the fate and future of their country too.
- Mohamed Chebaro is a British-Lebanese journalist, media consultant, and trainer with more than 25 years’ experience covering war, terrorism, defense, current affairs, and diplomacy.
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