the ‘tortured couple’ who will never divorce

Relations between Algeria and France have never been so stormy as in recent weeks. Algerian leaders were surprised by a statement by French President Emmanuel Macron on September 30, in which he referred to the “hard politico-military system” of Algiers which is maintained thanks to the “commemorative rent” paid by the lasting legacy of French colonialism. He added that the Algerian regime instills in society a hatred towards France incompatible with the hope of a friendship between the two countries.

Mr. Macron also believes that Algerian President Abdelmajid Tebboune is under the control of high-ranking army officers who do not leave him enough room to lead the state.

By underlining the authoritarian character of the government of Algiers and by designating the army as one of the sources of its troubles, Mr. Macron could have garnered some support among the Algerians who oppose the direction in which they are heading. country. Unfortunately, the French president brushed aside such prospects when he also added that Algeria did not exist as a nation before it was colonized by France, and that he could not understand why Algerians are harsher on France than they are, for example, to Turkey, which has subjugated them for a longer period of history.

Following these statements, Algeria recalled its ambassador to Paris, and refused its airspace to any French military aircraft bound for Mali, where they are involved in a war against Islamist guerrillas in the Sahel. A full diplomatic split between Algeria and France is unlikely, but the current crisis is serious – as intense as that which followed the Algerian government’s nationalization of French oil companies in 1971.

Since the end of the Algerian war of independence, which left tens of thousands of deaths between 1954 and 1962, Algeria and France have failed to build a stable relationship. The story reads differently on both sides of the Mediterranean. The Algerian government is taking advantage of Paris’ lack of empathy to appear, in the eyes of the local population, as a protector of national identity, and this reaction is in turn exploited by various French governments to stir up passions during the elections.

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

A total diplomatic split between Algeria and France is unlikely, but the current crisis is serious

When the Stora report was finally released in February, Algiers balked at the end product. While he acknowledged that the report had taken a few steps forward, he ultimately found that they were insufficient. The Algerians had hoped, for example, that France would admit that its army was guilty of war crimes during the war. The report makes no such recommendation.

But for all its anger, there is no doubt that the Algerian government is using details of the past as leverage to make diplomatic gains in the present. For example, they ask the French government to support the Algerian position at the UN in its dispute with Morocco over Western Sahara.

Alongside this conflict of memory, which will not disappear anytime soon, there is another point of contention: the case of Algerian undocumented migrants living in France. Back home, they are called “harragas”, that is to say “those who burn”. They risk their lives to cross the Mediterranean to reach Spain. From there, they go to France and, on their arrival, some would burn their passports. The French authorities have repeatedly asked their Algerian counterparts for help in deporting them.

But Algeria shows little will to take them back, to the chagrin of French Interior Minister Gérard Darmanin, himself of Algerian origin. In a recent television interview, the Algerian president hinted that Mr. Darmanin was dishonest, exacerbating the crisis between the two governments.

It is widely suspected that the Algerian government wants the extradition of some of its political opponents installed in France in exchange for cooperation on the issue of undocumented migrants. Algerian authorities want France to extradite, for example, Ferhat M’Henni, a Kabyle ethnic 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 decision, however, the French administration cannot send them to Algeria. In any case, Paris fears that if they are expelled, they will be tortured.

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

Human relations between France and Algeria are very deep. There are 7 to 8 million French people whose parents have had an intimate relationship with Algeria in the past, either for having lived there, or for other family or professional ties. There are also 1 million French citizens of Algerian origin and 800,000 other Algerian migrants living legally in France. And France is Algeria’s third importing partner, after China and Italy.

Yet the deep roots of the two countries in each other’s lands does not make their relationship easy. On the contrary, it makes things more difficult. Whenever a diplomatic crisis erupts, scores of lives are affected and long-established commercial ties are severed. These problems hurt both French citizens and Algerians, and they also hurt French businesses.

But there’s another way the closeness of the relationship complicates things. If the Algerian market is certainly important for the French government, Paris considers that it also has cultural interests to defend in Algeria. Algeria has contributed a lot to the French cultural landscape. Despite the Arabization of the Algerian 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 French-speaking Algerian writers are well known in France, notably Yasmina Khadra, Boualem Sansal and Kamel Daoud. Faced with 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 French-speaking world, rather than a center of its own history.

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

Posted: Oct 29, 2021 4:00 AM

About Wesley V. Finley

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