Algeria and France: the 'tortured couple' that will never divorce

The memories between the two nations are intimate, but read very differently

Millions of Algerians call France home. Getty
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The relationship between Algeria and France has never been as tempestuous as it has in recent weeks. Algeria’s leaders were surprised by a statement made by French President Emmanuel Macron on September 30, in which he referred to the “tough political-military system” in Algiers that sustains itself using the “memorial rent” paid by the enduring legacy of French colonialism. He added that the Algerian regime instils in society a hatred towards France incompatible with the hope of a friendship between the two countries.

Mr Macron also believes that Algeria’s President, Abdelmajid Tebboune, is under control of high-ranking army officers who do not give him enough room to run the state.

By highlighting the authoritarian nature of the government in Algiers and by pointing to the military as one source of its troubles, Mr Macron could have garnered some support among Algerians who oppose the direction in which their country is headed. Unfortunately, the French President dashed any such prospects when he also added that Algeria did not exist as a nation before its colonisation by France, and that he could not understand why Algerians are harsher towards France than they are, for example, towards Turkey, which subjugated them for a longer period of history.

Following these statements, Algeria recalled its ambassador to Paris, and denied its air space to any French military planes bound for Mali, where they are involved in a war against Islamist guerrillas in the Sahel. A total diplomatic rupture between Algeria and France is unlikely, but the current crisis is serious – as intense as the one that followed the Algerian government’s nationalisation of French oil companies in 1971.

Since the end of the Algerian war of independence, which resulted in tens of thousands of deaths between 1954 and 1962, Algeria and France have failed to build a stable relationship. History is read differently on either side of the Mediterranean. The Algerian government leverages the Paris’s lack of empathy to appear, in the eyes of the local population, as a protector of national identity, and that reaction is in turn exploited by different French governments to stir up passions during elections.

Gearing up for his own campaign for re-election in a vote scheduled for 2022, Mr Macron has sought to reconcile the conflicting memories for good. Last year, he asked Benjamin Stora, an Algerian-born French historian known as a leading authority on Algerian history, to write a report and to make some recommendations for a Franco-Algerian settlement. He discussed the report in advance with the Algerian government, inviting its input. Algeria appointed Abdelmadjid Chikhi, the head of its national archives, to serve as Stora’s counterpart.

Diplomatic rifts between Paris and Algiers have grown this year. AFP
A total diplomatic rupture between Algeria and France is unlikely, but the current crisis is serious

When the Stora Report was finally published in February, Algiers balked at the final product. While it acknowledged that the report took some steps forward, it ultimately found that they were insufficient. The Algerians had hoped, for instance, that France would recognise that its army was guilty of war crimes during the war. The report makes no recommendation to do so.

But for all its ire, there is little doubt that the Algerian government uses the loose ends of the past as leverage to make diplomatic gains in the present. They ask the French government, for example, to support the Algerian position at the UN in its dispute with Morocco over the Western Sahara.

Alongside this conflict of memory, which will not disappear any time soon, there is another point of contention – the case of undocumented Algerian migrants who have settled in France. Back home, they are known as “harragas”, meaning “those who burn”. They risk their lives to cross the Mediterranean to reach Spain. From there, they go to France and, upon arrival, some are said to burn their passports. The French authorities repeatedly ask their Algerian counterparts for help in deporting them.

But Algeria displays little willingness to take them back, much to the ire of French Interior Minister Gerard Darmanin, who is himself of Algerian origin. In a recent television interview, Algeria’s President implied that Mr Darmanin is dishonest, deepening the crisis between the two governments.

It is widely suspected that the Algerian government wants the extradition of some of its political opponents who are settled in France in exchange for co-operation with respect to the issue of the undocumented migrants. The Algerian authorities want France to extradite, for example, Ferhat M’Henni, an ethnic Kabyle separatist; Amir Boukhris, known as Amir DZ, a social media activist; and Hicham Abboud and Abdou Semmar, both journalists. In the absence of a court order, however, the French administration cannot send them to Algeria. In any case, Paris fears that were they to be deported, they might be tortured.

For the Algerian government, already weakened by the Hirak popular protest movement, the presence of political opponents in France, where hundreds of thousands of other Algerians live, is alarming.

The human relationships between France and Algeria run very deep. There are 7 to 8 million French citizens whose parents had in the past an intimate relationship with Algeria, either having lived there or having some other family or business links. There are also 1 million French citizens of Algerian origin and another 800,000 Algerian migrants living legally in France. And France is Algeria’s third-largest import partner, after China and Italy.

Yet the deep entrenchment of the two countries in one another’s lands does not make their relationship easy. On the contrary, it makes it more difficult. Whenever a diplomatic crisis erupts, huge numbers of lives are affected, and long-established trade links are disrupted. These issues hurt French citizens as much as Algerians, and they also hurt French companies.

But there is another way in which the closeness of the relationship complicates things. While the Algerian market is certainly important to France’s government, Paris takes a view that it also has cultural interests to defend in Algeria. Algeria has contributed much to France’s cultural landscape. Despite the Arabisation of Algeria’s school system, the French language is still used by the state administration, and millions of people speak French, in addition to Arabic or Amazigh. Many francophone Algerian writers are well known in France, including Yasmina Khadra, Boualem Sansal and Kamel Daoud. In front of the global hegemony of the English language, Algeria is for France a linguistic bastion to be preserved. All of this, naturally, could make Algiers feel insecure – a corner of the Francophone world, rather than a centre of its own history.

France and Algeria are a couple – a tortured one, but with memories of intimacy. They may never be stable, but they will never divorce. Such a break-up would be too brutal and, ultimately, a waste of so much history.

Published: October 29, 2021, 4:00 AM