MS Risk Blog

A new crisis between France and Algeria

Posted on in Uncategorized title_rule

After a period of optimism, a new crisis in French-Algerian relations was triggered this month. Algeria’s recalling of its ambassador to Paris demonstrates the continuing issues between France and its former colony, stemming from values divergences and Algerian historical resentment toward France. Declining French influence across Africa and Algeria’s development of relationships with other major powers, in the context of the Ukraine war, likely make the Algerian regime more confident in challenging Paris and asserting its interests.

On 8 February, Algeria recalled its ambassador from Paris, accusing France of orchestrating the escape of French-Algerian rights activist Amira Bouraoui. Bouraoui was sentenced in 2021 to two years in prison for “insulting Islam” and offending Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune. She was freed, however, pending an appeal, but authorities banned her from leaving the country. On 3 February, Bouraoui was arrested in Tunisia, having crossed illegally into the country while trying to flee to France, where her son lives, and faced extradition back to Algeria. French diplomatic intervention led to the Tunisian government releasing Bouraoui and finally allowing her to board a flight to Lyon. The Algerian government’s reaction was severe. Along with recalling its ambassador, Algiers called the incident “unacceptable” and said that it caused “great damage” to French-Algerian relations.

This diplomatic escalation occurred amid a general sense of improving relations between the two countries, which are heavily burdened by France’s colonial past. Just last August, French President Emmanuel Macron visited Algeria, where he and Tebboune issued a joint declaration proclaiming “a new era” in ties. With increasing high-level contacts, observers were optimistic about deepening French-Algerian cooperation in various fields, from education to economy and energy, since Algeria’s importance as a gas supplier to the European Union (EU) increased significantly with the Russian invasion of Ukraine. So what went wrong this time?

The answer probably boils down to three factors: the obvious divergence between the two countries in terms of values, the Algerian government’s exploitation of historical grievances for domestic purposes, and Algeria’s increasing room for maneuver in its foreign policy.

Regarding contrasting values, Algerian authorities have cracked down on people and organizations associated with the 2019 Hirak protest movement, resulting in increasing repression within the country. Last year, numerous media outlets were shut down, while in January 2023, authorities dissolved the Algerian League for the Defense of Human Rights (LADDH), Algeria’s oldest independent rights group. In Bouraoui’s case, as a liberal democracy and EU member, Paris would be expected to intervene in support of a French citizen. Indeed, French Foreign Ministry spokesperson François Delmas said that Bouraoui is “a French national and, as such, the French authorities exercise their consular protection”. Obviously, this did not go down well with Algeria’s authoritarian government.

Furthermore, the Algerian authorities’ harsh reaction to Bouraoui’s French-facilitated escape was likely also motivated by domestic considerations. Along with the intensifying crackdown on dissent, the country faces significant economic challenges. Algeria’s oil- and gas-dependent economy is chronically plagued by corruption and growth issues, with 32% of people under 24 being unemployed. Clashing with France and accusing Paris of “interference” is probably an effective way to focus the population’s attention on external enemies and bolster the regime’s popularity. What makes France a convenient target is a strong Algerian sense of historical grievance, stemming from 132 years of French colonial rule and the brutal 1954-1962 Algerian War of Independence. Resentment came to the fore in October 2021, when Macron questioned Algeria’s existence as a nation before French colonialism and accused Algerian rulers of fomenting hatred against France. In response, Algeria accused France of having committed “genocide” and recalled its ambassador to Paris. Although normal relations were restored in January 2022, the French president has ruled out issuing any formal apology. This historical trauma, combined with complaints by the French-Algerian minority about discrimination and tensions over the issue of illegal migration from Algeria, probably makes France an appealing rhetorical target for the Algerian regime.

In terms of foreign policy, Algeria’s increased assertiveness toward its former colonial ruler is probably reinforced by the decline of French influence in Africa, and its relationships with other major powers. Paris’ influence and popularity across its former colonial possessions seem to be steadily dissipating. Continuous resentment over colonialism and France’s attempts to maintain its influence in the post-colonial period, along with the rise of a new social media-savvy generation that is increasingly questioning the status quo, have made a number of African governments more willing to distance themselves from France. Nowhere is the decline of French influence more evident than in the Sahel, where France terminated Operation Barkhane against jihadist groups and withdrew its troops from Mali in 2022, followed by another withdrawal from Burkina Faso in early 2023. In both cases, French forces were reportedly replaced by Russian mercenaries from the Kremlin-linked Wagner Group.

Algeria’s developing relationships with other major powers, which have been asserting themselves in Africa, also probably add to its confidence in challenging France. For example, Algiers maintains a long-standing close relationship with Russia, which is its main arms supplier. Algeria adopted a neutral stance on the Ukraine war and has expressed interest in joining the BRICS group (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa). There have also been reports about Algeria financing the deployment of Russian mercenaries in Mali. In addition, Algeria has strong trade ties with China, whose overall investments in Africa are much larger than those of France. It is also cultivating a close political and economic partnership with Turkey, which is increasingly challenging French interests in North Africa and the Sahel. It is notable that during his visit to Algeria, Macron accused Russia, China, and Turkey of spreading anti-French propaganda in Africa. Furthermore, amid the war in Ukraine and the turbulence in energy markets, other European powers are paying increasing attention to Algeria. Most prominent among these has been Italy. On 22 January, Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni visited Algeria and signed deals on increasing Algerian gas exports to Italy and Italian investment in Algerian gas infrastructure, aiming to reduce Italy’s dependence on Russian gas and establish Italy as a gas hub between North Africa and Europe.

In conclusion, the Algerian government likely seeks to bolster its popularity through public spats with the former colonial ruler, while strengthening its position vis-à-vis Paris by distancing itself from France’s sphere of influence in Africa and exerting pressure to achieve some form of more equal-terms relationship with France and the EU. Algeria’s ties with other major powers who are seeking footholds in Africa, combined with its increased importance in the context of the Ukraine war and the crisis in the energy market, probably make the regime feel that it has a stronger hand. Although French officials said that Paris intends to continue its efforts to deepen ties after the Algerian ambassador’s withdrawal, managing the relationship with Algeria will likely remain a challenge for France’s interests in Africa.