French President Emmanuel Macron heads to Algeria on Thursday seeking to soothe festering diplomatic tensions with an increasingly important supplier of gas to Europe.
Franco-Algerian relations are still fraught with resentment caused by the colonial era — Paris ruled the North African territory for more than 130 years — and the bitter war of independence.
But they have been particularly stormy in the last year after Macron reportedly questioned Algeria’s existence before French occupation and accused the Algiers government of fomenting “hatred towards France”.
Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune withdrew his country’s ambassador to Paris last October in response to the remarks, and also banned French military aircraft from its airspace.
Aides to Macron believe that both sides have moved on, noting the resumption of normal diplomatic relations and overflights to French army bases in the Sahel region south of Algeria.
“Since then, our exchanges with the Algerian government and President Tebboune have continued and intensified,” one advisor told reporters.
– Gas diplomacy –
Last year’s diplomatic row was brought to an end when Macron’s office issued a statement saying he “regretted” the misunderstandings caused by his comments.
Although the remarks were made behind closed doors, they were reported by Le Monde newspaper.
The then foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian was also dispatched to Algiers to smooth over ties with Tebboune.
Macron’s desire to fully patch up relations comes as Algeria emerges as a key alternative gas supplier to the European Union following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
European nations are seeking to end their dependence on Russian hydrocarbons, giving Algeria — with its pipelines to Spain and Italy — renewed clout and importance.
“The French president will certainly ask Algeria to make an effort to try to increase its gas production,” said Algerian economist Abderrahmane Mebtoul.
But Macron’s office cautioned against expectations that a major deal could be secured along the lines of the one announced by Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi when he visited Algiers in July.
“It’s not the focus of the visit,” said an advisor to Macron.
The head of French energy group Engie, Catherine MacGregor, will be among the high-powered French delegation with Macron, which includes the defence, foreign and economy ministers.
– No apology –
Macron is set to spend three days in the North African country, visiting the capital Algiers and then the second-largest city of Oran, where he will stop off at a record store and attend a breakdancing show.
The 44-year-old centrist last visited Algeria in December 2017, shortly after coming to power.
After taking office, Macron made a series of gestures aimed at healing past wounds on both sides of the Mediterranean but was reportedly left frustrated by Algeria’s reaction.
He has ruled out issuing an apology for colonialism, a highly sensitive topic in France.
“A lot has been done and the president will continue, but it’s not the main objective of this visit,” said the advisor to Macron.
“It’s about being oriented towards the future,” he stressed, saying no major new announcements on France’s colonial legacy were planned.
French historians say half a million civilians and combatants died during Algeria’s bloody war for independence — 400,000 of them Algerian — while the Algerian authorities say 1.5 million were killed.
Algerian rights groups have urged Macron not to overlook human rights abuses by the government that came to power when long-time leader Abdelaziz Bouteflika stepped down in 2019 after two decades in power.
Tebboune, a prime minister under Bouteflika, has clamped down on the Hirak opposition movement that forced his predecessor to resign.
“Mr. President, there is nevertheless a serious issue that should not be hidden during this visit: the state of human rights in Algeria,” a joint letter to Macron from a dozen overseas Algerian groups said this week.
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