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Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Macron’s Algeria Visit: Political Interests and Enduring Wounds

Macron’s Algeria visit
French President Emmanuel Macron (L) and Algeria’s President Abdelmadjid Tebboune (R). Ludovic MARIN / AFP

Ali Noureddine

This article has been translated from Arabic.

Numerous strategic, political, economic and security interests prompted French President Emmanuel Macron to visit Algeria in August 2022 with a large delegation of 90 people, including seven ministers.

The sheer size of the delegation was in itself an indication of the high importance that this visit held for Macron. Of equal importance was the joint declaration that Macron concluded with Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune labeled, “a renewed, tangible and ambitious partnership.”

However, developing such a partnership, of which Macron is in urgent need today, must still overcome lingering wounds from Algeria and France’s past.

Bitterness over the thorny events that characterized the relations between the two countries over the past two centuries, including the colonial era and the national war of liberation that claimed hundreds of thousands of Algerians, still festers.

Moreover, Macron exacerbated that animosity a year ago by insinuating in provocative statements that Algeria did not exist as a nation before France colonized it. This resentment was reflected in the tenuous welcome he received during his recent visit to the country.

Why does France need Algeria today?

Macron is in need of Algeria today, especially in terms of gas supplies. Before the Ukraine war, France relied on Russia to provide 17 per cent of its gas needs. However, the Russian company Gazprom has largely suspended its gas shipments to the French energy company Engie under the pretext of a “disagreement between the two parties over the implementation of contracts.”

In reality, since the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin has reduced the amount of gas flowing toward Europe in response to sanctions imposed on Russia, prompting France to prepare for the possibility of a complete halt of Russian gas. These developments are very concerning for Europeans who stand on the cusp of winter, which usually sees high demand for energy sources for heating.

Naturally, Macron quickly turned to Algeria as the ideal country that could help fill the gap left by the declining gas supplies from Russia. With some 159.05 trillion cubic feet of proven gas reserves, Algeria ranks tenth in the world in this regard.

In practice, Algeria is connected to Europe via gas pipelines that supply 11 per cent of European gas demand through Italian territory. As a result, during his visit to Algeria, Macron did not hide his keenness to cooperate with Algeria to diversify gas supplies for the European market as part of Europeans’ inclination to reduce dependence on Russian gas while increasing supplies from other sources, including Algeria.

Furthermore, Macron’s visit coincided with press reports that the French company Engie would soon reach an agreement with Algeria to increase natural gas imports to France, which could compensate for the decrease in gas supplies from Russia.

It should be noted that Algeria provides only 8 per cent of France’s natural gas needs, a proportion that could increase significantly in the coming months, especially if the French authorities carry out the required diplomatic effort.

Macron is betting on Algeria on the gas issue for other reasons as well. The latter is now starting a significant effort to build new gas pipes to connect it to other African nations like Nigeria and Niger, who have signed contracts for this $13 billion project.

In turn, natural gas can be exported from these countries to Algeria, which can be routed to Europe through the pipelines connecting Algeria to Italy. Consequently, Algeria would play a far bigger role in reducing the gap resulting from the decline in Russian gas supplies to Europe, with the pipelines allowing 30 billion cubic meters of gas to be transported annually to Europe.

In addition, Macron seeks security coordination with Algeria on the issue of illegal immigration, a large proportion of which, according to the French, passes from Africa through Algerian territory towards Europe.

Macron already indicated after his meeting with the Algerian president that France had called on Algeria to be “more effective in combating illegal immigration,” by “working together and in a climate of collective trust,” in order to anticipate and prevent such immigration.

In this respect, Macron has urged Algeria to assist in this regard to stop unauthorized immigrants from utilizing its coastline to try to reach European shores.

Enduring wounds

Although Macron made certain gains during his visit to Algeria, especially in terms of increasing gas imports to the French company Engie, there were numerous indications during the visit that past wounds in the memory of Algerians have yet to heal.

Macron’s tours in the cities of Algiers and Oran were met by popular protests chanting slogans against the French president for Algeria’s independence, indicating that residents were not pleased with his visit.

This unfavorable response to the tour may have been brought on by prior claims that there had never been an Algerian nation prior to France’s colonization of the region, particularly in light of the fact that the historical ties between the two nations were not seriously examined during Macron’s stay.

Even the platform Macron used to address the media during his visit was inscribed with “Algerian Presidency” in Arabic and English, a nod to Algeria’s efforts to break free from the colonial era’s legacies, which included the adoption of French as a second language by Algeria.

With the decision to use English in elementary courses rather than French, the president of Algeria started to progressively lessen his nation’s dependency on the French language in an attempt to alleviate the lingering effects of colonialism. In order to fully replace French with English, the Ministry of Education also said in 2019 that it intended to expand the teaching of English in postgraduate courses.

Overall, it seems that Macron’s efforts to help heal the still-open historical wounds between the two nations have fallen short. He did not express regret for the thousands of Algerians who died in the country’s liberation struggle, nor did he provide the apology that Algerians want for France’s conduct during its colonialism of the country.

The French extreme right, which is pressing Macron internally and opposing a re-reading of France’s history and domination during the colonial era, appears to have tied Macron’s hands on this issue. Benjamin Stora, a French historian born in Algeria, had been hired by Macron to create a study on the memory file, but when it was released in January of last year, it made no recommendations for an apology to the Algerian people.

Macron was thus denied the reception he sought, even though he tried to make up for the lack of an apology by calling for the formation of a joint committee to examine the colonial era, which seemed to skirt the direct apology demanded by the Algerians.

Macron also failed to meet any of the other Algerian popular demands, foremost of which was addressing the issue of visas granted to Algerians which France cut by half last fall. Macron merely made some promises to study the issue, which France has always used to pressure the governments of Maghreb countries, without arriving at any serious understanding regarding the matter.

It is very evident that Macron’s visit was just an effort to further commercial and security interests, particularly in light of illegal immigration and gas exports to Europe. Due to the rise in Algeria’s gas exports to Europe and the use of its lands to transfer gas from Niger and Nigeria to Europe, Algeria may already have profited from increasing collaboration with France in the gas sector.

However, none of these developments, including Macron’s recent trip, will help to fast heal the historical divide between France and Algeria.

DISCLAIMER

The opinions expressed in this publication are those of our writers. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of Fanack or its Board of Editors.

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