ALGIERS — French President Emmanuel Macron will land in Algeria on Thursday — his first visit to the former colony in five years — aiming to improve tense relations with the gas-rich nation as the EU wrestles to diversify energy supplies away from Russia.
Issues like security, economic ties and energy rank high on the French president’s agenda, but it’s what he has to say about the country’s colonial past that will likely draw the most attention. The Mediterranean nation was part of the French colonial empire for well over a century until it gained independence in 1962 following a war that took a massive human toll and was characterized by savage brutality — leaving a lasting mark on French politics and society.
Franco-Algerian relations hit rock bottom last year following Macron’s comments over Algeria’s alleged instrumentalization of past grievances. Algeria withdrew its ambassador in response, though the two nations have made some headway in re-establishing ties since.
Much is at stake for the French president during his three-day visit as France aims to not only normalize bilateral relations with Algeria but also salvage its sphere of influence in Africa as Russia and China seek to strengthen alliances across the continent.
Friends and foes appear to have supplanted France as privileged partners with the country. Algeria, one of the leading producers of gas in the world, signed a major energy deal with Italy last month, and plans to hold joint military exercises in November with its longtime ally Russia.
The visit will focus firmly on “the future” of the relationship, the Elysée said at a briefing with the press Tuesday, noting several forthcoming meetings with Algerian president Abdelmadjid Tebboune that are not focused on historical differences.
“The president has already done a lot of work on the questions [of the colonial past]… We have to continue working on these issues and the president wants to, but there are other topics… there’s the future, the youth, new technologies, etc.”
In a sign that the French president means business, the presidential delegation will include no less than six French ministers and several business leaders including the head of energy company Engie Catherine MacGregor and the billionaire telecommunications tycoon Xavier Niel.
But pitfalls and opportunities for missteps will be numerous for a French president who loves face-to-face encounters with ordinary citizens and does not shy away from speaking his mind.
Macron’s choice of words on the colonial past will also be closely watched at home by the “Pied Noir” communities, descendants of the French returnees from the colony who have their own grievances with the French state. Macron is heading to the city of Oran on Friday after having called earlier in the year for “the massacre” there of “hundreds of Europeans, mostly French citizens,” to be recognized.
“Macron is taking a risk. Visiting Algeria, a former colony, is always a risky visit for a French president, and it’s a significant year, it’s 60 years since the end of Algeria’s war of independence,” says Hasni Abidi, a political scientist at the University of Geneva.
“Macron wants to send a message, that he wants to go beyond history and open a new page in relations,” he said.
Mending ties with a former colony
Relations between France and Algeria soured last year when the French president was quoted as having made several incendiary remarks about Algeria in the French press. Macron accused Algeria’s “military-political system” of rewriting history and of encouraging “hatred towards France.” He also questioned whether Algeria existed as a nation before French colonization.
The comments infuriated the Algerian regime, which recalled its ambassador for several months.
The North African country won its independence from France following a brutal and protracted eight-year war that ended with the signing in March 1962 of the Evian Accords. French historians say half a million people died in the war, including 400,000 Algerians, while Algerian authorities say 1,500,000 lives were lost.
In July of the same year, 99.72 percent voted for independence in a referendum and Algeria finally broke the yoke of French colonial rule — but memories of the 132-year occupation continue to cast a cloud over Franco-Algerian relations.
Macron will face intense scrutiny on these issues after his comments triggered what Amar Mohand-Amer, a historian at a research center in Oran, called a “grave crisis.” At the time, Macron was accused of pandering to the far-right electorate ahead of the 2022 presidential election.
“What he says will be observed closely … I think he will make a statement about the colonial past to end the fluctuations with Algeria. And then he will stop talking about these issues.”
In his first term, the French president started out with significant political capital in Algeria. During the campaign for the presidential election in 2017, Macron characterized France’s colonization of Algeria as “a crime against humanity.”
As the first French president born after the Algerian war of independence, Macron made several bold statements and while he refused to issue an official apology, he took steps to address France’s colonial past such as declassifying state archives and commemorating victims of the war.
But it remains to be seen whether ordinary Algerians will warm to Macron once again during his visit.
“A lot of Algerians don’t like Macron’s flip-flopping. We welcomed the candidate Macron who was courageous and said colonization was a crime against humanity,” Mohand-Amer said.
“But five years later, he says that colonial France created the Algerian nation. His ambiguity offends people,” he said.
The French and Algerian governments have made little progress on tackling unresolved historical conflicts. Prominent Algerian-born historian Benjamin Stora was commissioned in 2020 by the French government to write a report on colonization, but his recommendations were largely ignored by Algeria.
“None of the recommendations were implemented [on the Algerian side], whether it was starting youth exchanges, working on war cemeteries, there was no response,” said French historian Pierre Vermeren at the Sorbonne University.
“There can’t be a Franco-Algerian cooperation on the past, if one of the two parties doesn’t want to take part,” he said.
While Macron has made little headway resolving historical differences with the Algerians, he did however provoke the indignation of France’s far-right National Rally, with one figure dismissing the Stora report as “a memorial war on French families.”
France’s shrinking sphere of influence
Despite a lack of progress on historical matters, the Elysée now sees signs that a corner has been turned in relations with the Algerian government.
French military planes are once more allowed to fly into Algerian airspace after being banned last year, a move that helps military operations as France wraps up its anti-Islamist operation in the Sahel. A longstanding disagreement over re-admitting illegal immigrants back into Algeria also appears to be reaching a resolution.
According to political scientist Hasni Abidi, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has changed the outlook not only for France which is looking to diversify the EU’s energy suppliers, but also for Algeria.
“Algeria has understood that it doesn’t want to remain on the sidelines and appear part of the Russian axis, it wants to work with the Western camp,” said Abidi.
“Gas and oil are Algeria’s bread and butter. It saw how Russia was ostracized from the international community and it wants to stay credible,” he added.
Algeria is already a gas supplier to France, and while the Elysée warned that “no groundbreaking deals” would be announced during the trip, boosting gas deliveries to Europe to compensate for dropping Russian deliveries will be a focus of the trip according to several observers.
“It’s clear that Algeria has become more important on the energy front [for France]. But the Italians got in first, the Ukraine crisis was already bad in November last year and they started negotiations,” said energy expert Francis Ghilès from the CIDOB research center in Barcelona, referring to a €4-billion deal signed last month between Algeria and Italy.
“But looking further than the Ukraine crisis, there are whole swathes of the territory that are unexplored or could be re-explored,” he said.
Beyond the hard-edged issues of gas and security cooperation in the Sahel, France’s cultural sphere of influence is also at stake. In July, the Algerian president announced that primary schools would start teaching English to pupils, a move that might signal a shift away from French, a language still used in officialdom. Frustrated Algerian elites are being lured away from going to France over visa issues and often prefer destinations such as Turkey or the Gulf states.
“But all is not lost for France. Algeria has shown that it can diversify its partners, and I think the message has been heard loud and clear in Paris,” said Abidi.
There are cards in Macron’s hand — a shared history, a strong Franco-Algerian community, military cooperation — if he can play them well.
America Hernandez contributed to reporting.