Hollande’s First Visit to Algeria: Desperately Seeking a ‘New Era’
On the second day of his first visit to Algeria, French President Francois Hollande stood up before both chambers of the Algerian parliament to “recognize the suffering inflicted by colonization upon the Algerian people.” He also accepted responsibility for “the profoundly unjust and brutal system to which Algeria was subjected for 132 years; and that system has a name: colonization.”
Spoken fifty years after the former colony’s independence, these words did not constitute the “apology” demanded by several Algerian political parties (nor was it the “repentance” dreaded by the right-wing in France). But for his Algerian hosts, these were pleasing words. They were also the crucial starting point in Mr. Holland’s pitch for a “new era” between the two countries. Since he set foot in Algiers, the socialist president had spared no effort to achieve what other French leaders have failed to achieve so far: overcoming the hindrance of the past in order to focus on the benefits of the future.
For decades, relations between both countries never settled on a steady course. French hesitation to deal adequately with the country’s colonial legacy and the Algerians’ particular sensitivity to French attitudes put bilateral relations on a path of continued turbulence, especially during the last decade. The thawing of the ice started during last French elections. French voters of Algerian extraction, an important segment of the Muslim electorate in France, extended their hands to Francois Hollande. Their favorable perception of his conciliatory attitude, as well as their rejection of the right-wing politics of his rival, Francois Sarkozy, earned the socialist candidate the overwhelming support of French voters of Algerian origin (More than 90% of the votes of French Muslims went to Hollande, according to the polling agency OpinionWay). Since his election, the new French president seemed determined to do better than his predecessors. He had the personal commitment of somebody with “powerful memories” of a one-year stay in Algiers during the late seventies, as a student-intern at the French embassy there. Signals of good-will quickly followed. A few months into the office, Hollande made the gesture of remembering Algerian pro-independence demonstrators who fell victims in 1961 to “bloody repression” by French police in Paris. His “remembrance” of Algerian civilian casualties in France was well received in Algeria. It set the right mood for this week’s visit to France.
Mr Hollande knew in advance that dealing adequately with the painful legacies of the past was a necessary step to engage Algerian leaders, especially President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, in a dialogue about better bilateral relations. The 200-person strong delegation accompanying him to Algeria, including nine ministers, more than 40 businessmen and 100 reporters, reflected the importance he accorded to his first trip to a Maghrebi country since his election.
The stakes for Hollande were high, in more than one regard. There were obviously the economic interests. Already, 450 French companies are based in Algeria and France is already Algeria’s first source of imports. France’s European competitors, such as Italy and Spain, as well as non-Europeans powers, especially China, have increasingly challenged France in what it long considered its “chasse gardée”. Algeria’s population of 37 million and its substantial hydrocarbon revenues, make the country an attractive market for the currently-struggling European economies and a magnet for French companies desiring to expand business and trade opportunities.
The French export-insurance corporation, COFACE, pointed out recently that Algeria has “a solid financial situation” with a debt ratio that is less than 10% of its GNP. During the visit, several bilateral agreements were signed in the fields of defense, security, industry, agriculture, finance, and education, including an agreement allowing French car manufacturer Renault to assemble up to 75,000 cars in Oran and therefore expand its share of the Algerian and African automotive markets.
Mr. Hollande’s visit was also an opportunity to try to smooth down policy differences over regional and international issues. In an apparent move to avoid an unnecessary public controversy about the two countries divergent policies, he removed a paragraph on the Syrian crisis from the prepared text of his speech to parliament. Statements on the situation in Mali showed that despite their eagerness to help organize a military campaign against Jihadist groups in Northern Mali, the French want to take into consideration the concerns of the country with the longest border with Mali and with the greatest ability in the region to-make-or-break any military initiative there. Algeria’s long experience in dealing the threat of Al Qaida in the Maghreb was also the basis for talks on fighting terrorism.
Beyond agreements and compromises on regional issues, Hollande did not conceal his hope to set the stage for a long-term “strategic partnership between equals”. He tried to make all the right moves to nudges the two countries towards what French socialist leader Razzy Hammadi called a “complex-free relationship”. But the history of French-Algerian relations teaches us that the secret for the success of any well-meaning bilateral initiatives is their long-term sustainability. The road to “normalization” on all fronts is strewn with all sorts of challenges, new and old, and most of all that of the lethargy that often settles in after an enthusiastic start. “Right deeds have to follow”, cautioned Francois Hollande, at the end of his Algerian journey. The degree of proximity between Algeria and France is at best not a guarantor of sufficient understanding. An IFOP poll, conducted on the eve of the French president’s visit to Algeria, showed for instance that only 26% of the French population had a “positive image” of Algeria. Removing the distorting prisms and preset notions behind such an unfavorable perception will be a first benchmark towards developing a truly “complex-free” relationship. Oussama Romdhani, a former Tunisian member of government, is currently an international media analyst.