French President Emmanuel Macron will be in Algeria on Wednesday for a one-day visit. The aim of his first visit to Algiers as head of state is to “reshape” the relationship between the two countries.
Going to Algeria has been a mandatory step for all newly elected presidents since 1975 when Valérie Giscard d’Estaing became the first French leader to visit the former French colony after it won its independence.
So, although Macron is planning an official state visit in the coming months, he has organised a short visit now.
Fifty-five years after Algeria’s independence, the relationship between Algiers and Paris is still weighed down by the two countries’ tumultuous shared history but Macron is reported to have a positive image in Algeria
Neither denial nor repentance
Born after the end of the Algerian war, Macron may have a cooler approach to the relationship between the two countries than previous French leaders.
During a visit to Algiers during this year’s presidential election campaign, he went further than his predecessor, François Hollande, who recognised in 2012 the “sufferings imposed by French colonisation”.
Macron called colonialism “a crime against humanity”, a statement that won over a lot of Algerians while starting a controversy in France.
Macron’s advisers told RFI that Macron’s approach is “to be neither in denial nor in repentance” over colonisation but as president, he now wants “to turn the page and reshape the relationship” between the two countries.
While his predecessors made the same vow without really delivering on it, Andrew Lebovitch of the European Council on Foreign Relations believes that Macron actually could drive a change.
“Macron has already weighed in with his clear comments on colonisation and he could also on this visit make a strong symbolic gesture, like the return of the skulls of resistance fighters decapitated during the 19th century,” he says. “But, at the same time, Macron seems to be very intent on normalising the relationship with Algeria in the sense of treating Algeria the same way it treats other countries and that is also, I think, the goal on the Algerian side.”
The will on both sides normalise the relationship is embodied in the emphasis put on the economic aspect of the visit.
Macron is not staying long enough to take along a big delegation but a high-level governmental meeting on that topic is already scheduled to take place in Paris this Thursday.
“Algerians are really focused on their country’s economy, all the more as it is very dependent on oil and has deeply suffered from tumbling oil prices,” Benjamin Stora, a history professor at Paris-13 university explains. “It’s therefore obvious that economic links are going to be more and more dominant in this relationship.”
Macron can gain approval by talking to young Algerians and those who want to diversify the economy by welcoming innovating companies and start-ups, he believes.
“In that respect, many Algerian economic players are closely watching what’s going on in France,” Stora adds. “But, as you may know, France is no longer Algeria’s top business partner. It has been replaced by China in 2014 and other European countries such as Spain and England are looking for opportunities as well, so we have here a true economic battle for France to fight, even though this crucial aspect of its relationship with Algeria is too often forgotten.”
Fight against terrorism
Also on the table is the issue of terrorism. Algeria is leading mediation in the Mali crisis and has always been seen as the best-equipped country to fight insurgents in the Sahel region.
“Yet there is frustration among about what they see some quarters in France as limited participation in regional counterterrorism strategies,” Andrew Lebovitch indicates.
On the other hand, Algerian Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal underlined last week that Algeria has spent more than 100 million dollars in the last eight years just on training and equipping special forces in the Sahel and West Africa.
“On top of this bilateral approach, Algeria is also involved through the African Union: the head of the AU peace and security commission has traditionally often been an Algerian diplomat and the AU has just appointed Algiers as the coordinator of its counterterrorism strategy,” Andrew Lebovitch explains. “So they are indeed involved but maybe not in the form or to the extent that France would like, especially with the push under Macron for the constitution of the G5 Sahel joint force.“
To tackle all these issues, Macron will meet Sellal and President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, whose poor health remains a taboo subject in diplomatic dealings.
Interestingly enough, Macron will also meet Abdelkader Bensalah, who as president of the National Council would legally step in, if Bouteflika were not to finish his term in office.