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France-Algeria relations: Colonial past still dominates ties

June 4, 2023

Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune is due to visit France later this month. Sixty years after Algeria gained its independence, relations between the two states remain strained.

French President Emmanuel Macron and Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune in Algiers
French President Emmanuel Macron and Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune met in Algiers in August 2022Image: Ludovic Marin/AFP/Getty Images

The date has not yet been officially set, but if Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune does travel to France in mid-June as announced, he will have a range of difficult issues to discuss with his French counterpart, Emmanuel Macron. Both men are keenly aware that a variety of bilateral questions, some historical, some current, remain unresolved.

This year has already seen one major crisis: In February, French authorities helped Algerian-French journalist and political activist Amira Bouraoui escape extradition from Tunisia to Algeria, where she faced a prison sentence, and settle in France.

Bouraoui founded the Barakat movement in 2014, in protest against President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who was running for a fourth term.

Amira Bouraoui hugs a person after being released from jail  (file photo from 2020)
Amira Bouraoui escaped extradition to Algeria in February (file photo from 2020)Image: Ammi Louiza/ABACA/picture alliance

She then launched another protest movement in 2019, named Moutawana, which helped to prevent Bouteflika from seeking a fifth term and eventually led to his stepping down.

Bouraoui was imprisoned briefly in 2020, and was later sentenced to two years in jail for "offending Islam" and insulting the president. Then, earlier this year after being forbidden from leaving Algerian territory, she traveled to Tunisia, where she was detained by authorities.

There was concern that she would be extradited to Algeria, but France allowed her entry. Algeria considered this an affront, recalled its ambassador from Paris and stopped issuing consular passes for repatriation of its nationals expelled from France.

At the end of March, Macron and Tebboune spoke by phone and agreed to avoid "regrettable misunderstandings" in the future, allowing the Algerian ambassador to resume his duties.

'No shortage of sensitive issues'

But bilateral relations between the two countries remain difficult. "There is no shortage of sensitive issues," as Algerian news website TSA put it in March.

One of these is the imprisonment of journalist Ihsane El Kadi. Renowned French intellectuals have called for his release in an open letter to the Algerian president, as has the European Parliament, meaning Macron will not be able to ignore the case if he meets Tebboune.

Demonstrators shout slogans in favor of independence and peace in Algeria on the Grands Boulevards in Paris on November 18, 1961
In 1961, demonstrators in Paris called for independence and peace in AlgeriaImage: AFP/Getty Images

Another issue that has long been a source of contention is how to commemorate French colonial rule in Algeria from 1830 to 1962, which culminated in the Algerian War and Algerian independence. Many Algerians continue to resent remarks Macron made in October 2021 ahead of the 60th anniversary of independence, when Macron accused the Algerian government of rewriting history and said that the new history was "not based on truths" but "on a discourse of hatred toward France."

Then too, Algeria reacted by withdrawing its ambassador to France for several months and denied French military aircraft access to Algerian airspace.

Essential to address colonial memory

But despite all these disagreements, Zine Ghebouli, Algeria specialist at the European Council on Foreign Relations, thinks it's essential the two states address the "colonial memory."

He has noticed that younger generation of Algerians, who "did not really witness the colonial era," now also wanted to explore colonialism and its consequences. This might "cause some tensions," he told DW. "But I think it's a necessary step, especially from the Algerian perspective," to move toward "more serene relations with France."

France has at least made some symbolic gestures: In 2020, the remains of fighters killed resisting French colonial rule were formally repatriated to Algeria.

A man in front of several coffins covered in the Algerian flag
The skulls of 24 Algerian fighters who were decapitated spent decades in a French museum, and were formally repatriated in July 2020Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/T. Doudou

Reviewing the past is also important for France domestically. In May, the French government announced its intention to do more to support the Harkis — the approximately 200,000 Algerians who fought alongside France in the Algerian war from 1954 to 1962 — and their descendants, and to offer them more financial compensation.

The Harkis were infamously abandoned by the French at the end of the war, and many were massacred. Those who did manage to escape to France were initially interned in camps. In 2021, Macron asked for "forgiveness" on behalf of France.

Recurring tensions over migration

The bilateral relationship was also strained by France's decision in September 2021 to reduce the number of visas issued to Algerian nationals by half. The French government justified the move by saying it was a reaction to Algeria's refusal to take back its nationals. France lifted the restriction in December 2022, while Algeria pledged to do more to curb illegal immigration.

But this issue is likely to resurface. "Unfortunately, every time there is tension from France or from Algeria, there is almost always recourse to using the clandestine migration dossier as a political card," said Ghebouli, despite the fact that both are essentially interested in finding an amicable resolution.

The victims of the discord are always the migrants themselves, he said. "The only way to solve this problem is for both countries to work together."

Two men dressed in blue against the backdrop of a huge gas plant
Algeria is one of the world's biggest producers of natural gas Image: Mohamed Messara/dpa/picture alliance

Common focus on combating militant Islamism, natural gas

For all their differences, France and Algeria share an interest in combating militant Islamism, or jihadism, in the Sahel, particularly since the end of the French military-led anti-insurgent Operation Barkhane in 2022.

Moreover, in the wake of the Ukraine war, France also sees Algeria, one of the world's largest producers of natural gas, as a potentially important supplier of energy, even if the technical infrastructure of the Algerian energy sector desperately needs an overhaul.

But Russia, an important partner for Algeria and its leading arms supplier, could prove to be a problem here. It would not be in Moscow's interests for Algeria to increase cooperation with a major European state that is a clear supporter of Ukraine.

Much depends on Tebboune's visit to France, said Ghebouli. "It will be a very important trip, a very critical one for bilateral relations, and could either set the cooperation on a growing path, or it could open a new page of tensions," he said.

This article originally appeared in German.

Kersten Knipp
Kersten Knipp Political editor with a focus on the Middle East