Macron's vast delegation to Algeria is about history, not just diplomacy

As well as to discuss issues such as natural gas and migration, the French president is confronting a taboo and controversial imperial past

Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune welcomes French President Emmanuel Macron in Algiers on Saturday. EPA
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When a president takes a sizeable delegation on a visit to a country with a shared and troubled history, it is fair to assume the agenda is unusually long or complex.

If the entourage numbers more than 90, assumption turns to certainty.

So it was for France’s Emmanuel Macron when he crossed the Mediterranean to Algeria last Thursday. Accompanying him were senior ministers, business chiefs and religious leaders among others.

Officially, the purpose was “rebuild and develop” Franco-Algerian relations, feathers having been not so much ruffled as sent flying by disputes over immigration, Algerian nationhood and French concerns about its former colony’s links with Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

Barely settled back into full-time duties after his working holiday at the French Riviera presidential retreat, the Fort de Bregancon off Toulon, Mr Macron also had plenty of “any other business” to discuss with his Algerian counterpart Abdelmadjid Tebboune.

For both leaders, this was a significant occasion.

Even Mr Macron's admirers recognise his faults, including a tendency to seem haughty, perhaps impatient with the concerns of ordinary people. His solemn pre-Algeria statement that France’s days of “abundance” were over did nothing to reassure lower-income groups battered by the rocketing price of essentials.

The president has a sharp tongue, as Britain’s probable next prime minister Liz Truss was reminded in reports from Algiers. Asked about her curious comment that the “jury was out” on whether he was Britain’s friend or foe, Mr Macron swatted her away like a mildly irritating fly: “The British people and Britain are our friends … whoever their leaders are and sometimes despite their leaders.”

There have been awkward moments for Mr Macron in France. Regardless of his popularity domestically – while ratings fluctuate, unpopularity can reach high levels – he is a formidable statesman who understands the power of diplomacy.

The three-day visit reflected French acceptance that 60 years after Algeria gained independence from France, relations are in need of repair.

The balance sheet charting Mr Macron’s role in that relationship is mixed. He earned praise for his admission while campaigning for the presidency in 2017 that colonisation was a “grave mistake” and, more pointedly after his sweeping victory, when describing it as a “crime against humanity”.

But goodwill evaporated last year when he appeared to cast doubt on Algeria’s existence as a nation prior to the 132-year colonisation. He also suggested history had been rewritten with the aim of “fomenting hatred towards France”.

In response, Mr Tebboune briefly recalled his ambassador from Paris and banned French military aircraft from Algerian airspace. If the indignation was partly eased by the French president’s expression of regret about “misunderstandings” caused by his reported comments, damage had still been done.

The two countries also clashed over drastic cuts in French visas for Algerians. Paris accused Algeria and its neighbours Tunisia and Morocco of not doing enough to stop the flood of immigration across the Mediterranean and of being unwilling to accept the return of “delinquents” expelled by France.

Much effort has since gone into averting an irretrievable breakdown of relations, efforts underpinned by Mr Macron’s first visit since 2017. He spoke of seeking a “renewed, concrete and ambitious partnership”, conciliatory words echoed in Mr Tebboune’s welcome for "promising prospects for improving the special partnership".

Beyond diplomacy, the visit demonstrated a need for broader co-operation, notably on economic and military fronts.

Despite withdrawing its troops from Mali, France continues to tackle an Islamist insurgency in the Sahel region.

But it has also embarked on what Mr Macron called a “re-think” of military strategy in Africa. The visit ended with a joint closing declaration vaguely pledging stronger co-operation faced with instability in the Sahel and Libya.

Then there was the question of Algerian gas.

The Elysee insisted this was “not really the object of the visit”. Sometimes, however, reading between the lines can be useful.

France, like other European countries, faces the sudden challenge of reducing dependency on Russian gas following the invasion of Ukraine.

Algeria is a major producer, providing around 11 per cent of Europe’s supplies. Most is exported via direct pipelines to Italy and Spain.

Mr Macron claims France’s gas needs are largely catered for. But he has to be seen as championing his country’s interests, presenting himself as a willing buyer.

Strikingly, that bumper delegation in Algeria included Catherine MacGregor, director general of Engie, one of France’s biggest energy companies and its leading supplier of domestic natural gas. The French state is Engie’s major shareholder and the presence of Ms MacGregor – a Frenchwoman who grew up in Morocco and kept the name of her former husband, a Scot – suggests talks on gas went beyond the declaration’s mention of collaboration on “energy transition”. The French energy ministry, meanwhile, said that talks were under way on Monday between Engie and Algeria’s Sonatrach to potentially increase gas imports to France.

In areas of mutual interest, progress was made. Mr Macron promised a joint French-Algerian commission giving historians free access to archives to study colonial rule and the bloody eight-year war of independence.

There was respectful commemoration of those who died in the war. Youth, and specifically educational and entrepreneurial opportunities for Algerian youth, were focuses of Mr Macron’s programme.

Even so, many of those with Algerian roots living in France feel victims of institutionalised racism. Anti-Islam narratives peddled by far right rabble-rousers with growing electoral clout cast a disturbing knock-on influence over the mainstream parties, including at times Mr Macron’s centrist Renaissance.

Despite the occasional weakness for clumsy language that mars his statesmanlike qualities, Mr Macron wants to show that his heart is in the right place.

As the first French president to be born since Algerian independence was granted under Charles de Gaulle, he chose a plaintive strain: “We didn't the choose the past, we inherited it."

Both countries have parts to play in dealing with that inheritance.

But as the former colonial power, one that admits colonisation was shameful, France’s share of the responsibility is greater than it has previously been willing to accept. Mr Macron's second and final five-year term dates only from April, leaving ample time for tangible action to match fine words more successfully than after the visits of predecessors.

Published: August 30, 2022, 4:00 AM