France’s Macron looks to ‘future’ on Algeria trip to mend ties
President Emmanuel Macron arrived in Algeria on Thursday for a three-day visit aimed at mending ties with the former French colony, which this year marked the 60th anniversary of its independence.
The first French president to be born after Algerian independence, Macron is hoping “to lay a foundation to rebuild and develop” a sometimes difficult relationship with the North African nation.
At a joint press conference on Thursday evening, Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune welcomed what he called the “encouraging results” of Macron’s visit.
Hailing a “positive dynamic” in their relationship, Tebboune said there were “promising prospects for improving the special partnership that binds us”.
Macron had landed earlier at Algiers’ main airport where he was warmly greeted by Tebboune and a military band that played both national anthems.
Later, the French leader visited a monument to martyrs of Algeria’s war for independence, laying a wreath at the site and observing a minute of silence.
The French president announced Thursday evening that the two countries would set up a joint French-Algerian commission of historians to study archives on France’s 130 years of colonial rule in Algeria, including the devastating eight-year war that led to independence in 1962.
“We have a common (but) complex and painful past,” said Macron, adding that the researchers would have full access to the archives.
Ties between Paris and Algiers have seen repeated crises over the years.
They had been particularly stormy since last year when Macron questioned Algeria’s existence as a nation before the French occupation and accused the government of fomenting “hatred towards France”.
Tebboune withdrew his country’s ambassador in response and banned French military aircraft from its airspace.
But Macron’s office said he “regretted” the misunderstandings caused by his comments, and his aides believe both sides have moved on, noting the resumption of normal diplomatic relations and overflights to French army bases in sub-Saharan Africa.
– Reconciliation ‘political necessity’ –
The French leader, on his second visit to Algeria since he took power in 2017, “has chosen to direct this visit towards the future, (focusing on) start-ups, innovation, youth, new sectors,” his office said.
Algerian media said Macron’s visit showed both countries’ desire for relations built around “a new vision based on equal treatment and balance of interests”.
Analyst Mansour Kedidir said that “given instability in the Maghreb region, conflicts in the Sahel and the war in Ukraine, improving ties between France and Algeria is a political necessity”.
Tebboune said he and Macron had discussed how to bring stability to Libya, the Sahel region and the disputed territory of Western Sahara.
They are also expected to discuss boosting Algerian gas deliveries to Europe to fill the vast shortfall following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February.
European nations are seeking to end their dependence on Russian hydrocarbons, giving Algeria — Africa’s biggest gas exporter with direct pipelines to Spain and Italy — renewed clout.
“The French president will certainly ask Algeria to make an effort to try to increase its gas production,” said Algerian economist Abderrahmane Mebtoul.
Macron’s office has said gas is not a major feature of the visit — although the head of French energy firm Engie, Catherine MacGregor, is in Macron’s delegation.
– ‘Different discourse’ –
Macron has long ruled out issuing an apology for the highly sensitive issue of colonialism, but he has made a series of gestures aimed at healing past wounds.
In Algiers, few have much sympathy towards Macron, who during his first election campaign had described French colonialism as a “crime against humanity”.
“Before he was president, he used nice words, he visited (Algeria), but right after he went back to France, he changed,” said computer scientist Othmane Abdellouche, 62.
“He used a totally different discourse”.
But businessman Kamel Moula, who heads the Council of Algerian Economic Renewal, told the TSA news website that he wanted to see “a new mode of cooperation” between the two countries that would see them “jointly conquer new markets”.
French historians say half a million civilians and combatants died during Algeria’s bloody war for independence, 400,000 of them Algerian. The Algerian authorities say 1.5 million were killed.
Tebboune’s office said in October that over 5.6 million Algerians were killed during the colonial period.
Algerian human rights groups have urged Macron not to overlook abuses by the government that came to power after long-time leader Abdelaziz Bouteflika stepped down in 2019.
Tebboune, a prime minister under Bouteflika, has clamped down on the Hirak opposition movement that forced his predecessor to resign.