French President Emmanuel Macron is likely to use his visit to Algiers on December 6 to make another significant speech about France’s colonial legacy in Algeria. But while history continues to play an important role in this bilateral relationship, there is much more at stake for the future of French-Algerian relations.
While improved relations during President Francois Hollande’s presidency allowed for better coordination between France and Algeria in political, economic, and security spheres, the results were somewhat disappointing despite good intentions. Relations are only likely to get tougher to navigate as Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s health declines, and Algeria’s future political order remains unclear.
President Macron will almost certainly use this trip to try to set out a positive agenda for the next five years, by seeking further strategic convergence between Paris and Algiers. With its large army and strong antiterrorism credentials, Algeria continues to be an important regional security player, and one that could be a more significant partner for France and the EU in the Sahel in particular. Algeria also continues to be an important supplier of energy to Southern Europe, including France, and a considerable market for exports from the French state, as well as Italy, Spain, and Germany. On the other hand, Algeria’s political and economic stagnation, coupled with falling oil revenues, mean there is also the possibility of near-term unrest, and, relatedly, of Algeria becoming a more significant source of migration to Europe, if solutions to its economic ills are not uncovered.
A Rocky Start to French-Algerians Relations under Macron
In 2012, Hollande’s visit to Algiers was lauded as a new chapter in Franco-Algerian relations. Hollande recognized the ‘suffering’ incurred by the ‘profoundly unfair, brutal and destructive colonial system,’ although he fell short of a full apology for French colonialism. Real progress was made in re-establishing Franco-Algerian relations on a more equitable footing, with the establishment of new channels for bilateral interactions, including CIHN (comité intergouvernemental de haut niveau), which brings together delegations of French and Algerian government ministers at regular intervals, and COMEFA (comité mixte économique franco-algérien), a forum aimed at strengthening Franco-Algerian economic relations. But the results have been mixed thus far and there is much work to be done.
Macron’s announcement that he would finally visit Algeria on December 6 was long overdue, particularly in light of the excitement and controversy caused by his campaign speech in Algiers, where he called French colonialism in the country a “crime against humanity.” Many expected Macron’s election to mark a new phase in Franco-Algerian relations. Once elected, however, the new French president broke with precedent set by both Nicolas Sarkozy and Hollande, who had made Algiers their first port of call outside “L’Hexagone”, and, instead, paid his first official visit to Morocco, Algeria’s neighbor and regional rival. In an attempt to appease the Algerians, Macron called the visit “personal” and sent Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian to Algiers. Since then, Macron’s hyperactive diplomacy has focused on almost every country in Algeria’s neighborhood and across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, except for Algeria itself.
Common Interests, Diverging Methods
In the security realm, there have been both advances and tensions between the two countries since President Jacques Chirac’s 2003 state visit to Algiers, which marked the first visit by a French president since Algerian independence.
While Algiers and Paris have diverged on the use of military power to solve regional tensions, both countries ultimately share common security interests in Libya and the Sahel. Following the 2011 revolution, Algeria held firm to its non-interventionist policy in Libya and belief the NATO intervention there would further destabilize the region. Algeria has, however, continued to cooperate with France, the United States, and other Western and regional states when it comes to intelligence sharing, and has coordinated effectively with Tunisia, in particular, in order to better secure their common borders.
Having again argued for non-intervention in Mali, and despite strong criticism from the Algerian press about Operation Serval, the French military action there, the Algerian government decided to allow French planes to fly through its air space, provided fuel to the operation, and closed its borders with Mali, to help prevent the retreat of terrorist groups. France supported the Algerian-led mediation between the Malian government and Tuareg led rebels in Northern Mali, which was supposed to settle the conflict that erupted in 2012.
France and Algeria continue to coordinate on the implementation of the widely critiqued Algiers Accords, which are centered on short-term demilitarization of Northern Mali, together with the devolution of more authority and resources to regional assemblies. The broader and more militarized Operation Barkhane, a French regional counter-terrorism effort in cooperation with Mali, Chad, Niger, Ivory Coast, and Burkina Faso, has, however, caused anger in Algeria amongst those who have viewed the growing French presence in the region with suspicion.
Meanwhile, French support for the G5 Sahel, an initiative for intra-Sahel coordination on development and security issues, which brings together the same five Sahel countries participating in Operation Barkhane, has increased tensions between France and Algeria. This has been particularly true in light of strong French and European backing for the G5 Sahel Joint Force, a battalion of 5,000 troops, launched in July. The G5 Sahel members did not invite Algeria to participate in this new entity, which undermines Algeria’s attempts at regional leadership in the Sahel, particularly in the security arena. To add insult to injury, the G5 Sahel invited Morocco to a recent meeting in Seville. Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita subsequently announced that Morocco would be willing to assist the G5 Sahel Joint Force by providing training to troops and help with border controls.
Better coordination with Algeria regarding regional security is essential for France and the EU given Algeria’s extensive land border with Libya, Niger, Mali and Mauritania, its large army, and considerable counterterrorism expertise. In a speech in Abidjan last week, Algerian Prime Minster Ahmed Ouyahia said that Algeria had already spent more than 100 million dollars supporting security efforts in five countries in the Sahel sub-region, comparing this with the 50 million promised by the EU to support the Joint Force. Ultimately, Algeria is a formidable ally in the region that France and the EU should seek to nurture.
In the economic sphere, there is much work to be done to achieve a truly fruitful commercial relationship between France and Algeria. From the Algerian perspective, there have been lower than hoped for levels of French investment. A major new Peugeot plant was finally announced at the COMEFA 4 meeting in November 2017, after months of delays. In his comments at COMEFA, French economy minister Bruno Le Maire made reference to a decline in Franco-Algerian trade and the complexity of the negotiations around the Peugeot deal. In addition, mainly due to the massive increase in Chinese exports, France makes up only 10% of Algeria’s trade compared with 24% in 2000. While the French government seems to genuinely favor investment in Algeria, the economic and regulatory outlook in Algeria makes investment complicated.
Ultimately, the unwillingness of many European companies to invest in Algeria is closely linked to the country’s unwelcoming economic and regulatory environment. Nepotism is widespread, with business circles close to the president’s brother, Saïd Bouteflika, widely believed to have caused the dismissal of Prime Minister Abdelmajid Tebboune because his proposed reforms would have hurt their interests. His successor, Ahmed Ouyahia, is carefully orchestrating his economic plans so as not to meet a similar fate, but his scheme allowing the Central Bank to lend directly to the treasury risks causing massive inflation.
Difficult economic measures have been postponed, thus easing public pressure in the short-term, but potentially causing much deeper unrest in the medium-term and creating an unappetizing investment environment. Indeed, this year, Algeria has fallen ten places to 166 out of 190 countries in the World Bank’s Doing Business rankings, reflecting the worsening economic environment.
The EU-Algeria Association Agreement is widely perceived as having failed to deliver. As the EU and Algeria set out their new partnership priorities in March 2017, many commentators remarked that since the Association Agreement came into force Algeria had lost 700 billion dinars (circa 7 billion dollars) in tariff revenues; local Algerian producers had to contend with a massive increase in EU exports to Algeria; there was only a negligible increase in non-hydrocarbon exports to Europe; and EU investment in Algeria remained low. The new partnership priorities are too vague and do not go far enough in helping Algeria deal with its economic challenges.
Bringing Europe Back In
Macron’s European hat has been rather absent in relations with the MENA region thus far. During his upcoming visit, there is the risk, again, that his European credentials will not be on show. This would, however, be a mistake.
In the strategic arena, closer relations with the EU might help reassure the Algerians that France is not trying to dominate the region again, particularly given Germany’s cautious foreign policy philosophy. Last month, the first EU-Algeria high-level informal dialogue on regional security and the fight against terrorism brought EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini and Algerian Foreign Minister Abdelkader Messahel together in Brussels, and could provide a productive avenue for the Europeanization of Sahel security discussions in future. Macron should not lose sight of this European angle whilst in Algiers.
France should also seek to strengthen the EU’s hand in the Algerian economy. As the biggest foreign investor in Algeria, France can certainly play a role in helping to revitalize Algerian industry and agriculture, but working through the EU would allow France to collaborate with other interested countries, notably Spain and Italy, to have a much deeper impact. Diplomats in Brussels already see France as the leader on Maghreb issues at the European Council. To get the Algerian economy back on its feet, France should use its position to flesh out its recent partnership priorities with Algeria, to give them more substance and push for considerable European support. These priorities are made up of good ideas, such as support for the modernization and reinforcement of Algerian public services and engagement with the private sector to support the diversification of the Algerian economy. A detailed action plan, backed up by considerable European support, will be necessary in order to help modernize Algeria’s defunct bureaucratic and industrial infrastructure.
The next few years are likely to be difficult ones for Franco-Algerian relationship. But given their joint security concerns in Libya and the Sahel and the potential for much greater economic gains on both sides, France cannot afford to wait these years out. President Macron’s visit on December 6 will mark the beginning of what could be a more constructive relationship, if properly navigated.
 Algeria sought to institutionalize its leadership role in the Sahel with the stillborn CEMOC (Comité d’état-major opérationnel conjoint), an ambitious security initiative bringing together Algeria, Mali, Niger and Mauritania, which was supposed to create a joint military base of 70,000 men at Tamanrasset in Southern Algeria, and in the somewhat more successful Nouakchott Process, which operates under the auspices of the African Union to promote regional security cooperation through coordination and intelligence sharing.