Algeria and France: out of crisis mode?


This June, Algerian President Tebboune is expected to visit France, his country's former colonial power. The relationship between the two countries continues to be burdened by numerous problem areas.

French President Macron (l.) and his Algerian counterpart Tebboune in August 2022 in Algiers

The date has not yet been officially set. But if Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune actually travels to France as announced (probably in mid-June), he is likely to have a number of difficult issues to discuss with his French counterpart Emmanuel Macron. Numerous questions in the relationship between the two countries are still unresolved, both with regard to the past and to the present.

It was only last spring that both countries had to solve another major crisis. In February, the Algerian-French activist Amira Bouraoui fled Algeria via Tunisia with the help of the French authorities, thereby avoiding imprisonment. Bouraoui is a red rag for the Algerian state: in 2014 she founded the Barakat movement in protest against a fourth mandate from then President Abdelaziz Bouteflika. When Bouteflika did resume another term, she helped launch a new protest movement, Moutawana, in 2019. Their work contributed to the fact that Bouteflika finally had to give up another term and lost his long-term post. 

In 2021 she was sentenced to two years in prison. Due to an amnesty, she was released after two months. In February 2023, Bouraoui then left for France. Algeria saw this as an affront by the French side and recalled its ambassador in protest. In addition, Algiers decided to no longer issue consular permits for France. These are essential for the deportation of “illegal immigrants” who are not wanted in France.

“Regrettable misunderstandings”

At the end of March, Macron and Tebboune finally got together for a phone call. They wanted to avoid “unfortunate misunderstandings” in the future, it was then said diplomatically. At the end of March, the Algerian ambassador resumed his official duties.

But even after the “Bouraoui affair,” bilateral relations remain difficult. “There is no lack of sensitive issues,” wrote the Algerian news site TSA in March. Only recently, well-known French intellectuals in an open letter of protest to the Algerian President advocated the release of the journalist Ihsane El Kadi, who was imprisoned in Algeria. The EU Parliament is also demanding his release. Macron will therefore hardly be able to ignore this topic when he meets Tebboune.  

French-Algerian activist Bouraoui in 2020 after her release from prison. In 2021 she was imprisoned again, in 2023 she was able to flee to France.

Permanent issue of colonialism

A topic that has been causing controversy for a long time is the memory of the French colonial rule in Algeria from 1830 to 1962, culminating in the Algerian War. Here the Algerians Macron still resent statements made in October 2021. Back then, in the run-up to 60. On the 10th anniversary of Algerian independence, Macron had accused the country in the Maghreb of practicing a “commemorative pension”. What was meant was that Algeria consistently used the historical guilt that France has incurred through its colonial rule for its current interests yield. Another allegation was that Algeria was treating colonial history as a “discourse” based on hatred of France. Algeria reacted as harshly as it did to the activist Bouraoui, withdrew its ambassador for several months. It also denied French military aircraft the right to fly in Algerian airspace.

Despite all the arguments and hassles, however, the coming to terms with the colonial past is unavoidable, says the political scientist Zine Ghebouli from the think tank European Council on Foreign Relations. He has observed that the younger generation of the Algerian population in particular is keen to deal with colonialism and its consequences. “That may lead to some tensions. But it is a necessary process, especially from the Algerian point of view, which will ultimately lead to better relations with France,” Ghebouli told DW. In this sense, France is at least trying to carry out symbolic actions: In 2020, for example, it handed over the mortal remains of victims of French colonial rule to Algeria.

The topic is of course also of domestic importance for France. It was only in May that Paris announced that it would do more for the so-called “Harkis” or their families and descendants in the future and want to compensate them more financially. This refers to the around 200,000 Algerians at the time who were at the side in the war of independence France had fought. Many were simply left to their fate after the end of the war and were massacred by the new rulers, others were put in French internment camps after a successful escape. Macron had already publicly apologized for these events in 2021. 

In July 2020, France transferred the mortal remains of victims of his colonial rule back to Algeria

The challenge of migration

Finally, the fact that France reduced the number of visas issued to Algerian citizens by half in September 2021 also caused greater contrition in bilateral relations. Paris declared at the time that it was reacting to the Maghreb countries' refusal to take back their nationals who had been turned away by France. Only in December last year did the government in Paris withdraw this restriction. At the same time, Algeria committed itself to curbing illegal immigration.

But the topic should probably only be off the table temporarily. Both states are interested in a mutual agreement on migration, says expert Ghebouli. “But every time the relationship between the two countries gets into a tense phase, it also affects how we deal with migration.” The victims of the dispute are always the migrants themselves. “This problem can only be solved if both countries work together.”

Common interests

Despite all the difficulties, France and Algeria are also pursuing common interests. Together they want to fight militant Islamism (jihadism) in the Sahel. After France withdrew the last soldiers of its “Barkhane” military mission in August last year, both countries fear the spread of Islamist terrorism in the region.

At the same time, France – like other European countries – sees Algeria as a potentially important energy supplier after the Russian attack on Ukraine. In fact, the country is one of the world's largest natural gas producers. Experts are assuming that there are a good four trillion cubic meters of gas reserves. The country also has oil reserves of 1.5 billion tons. However, problems are caused by the fact that the technical infrastructure of the Algerian energy sector is showing its age.

The Tiguentourine gas production facility in southern Algeria

Problems and perspectives

Algeria and France are likely to be equally interested in stabilizing their relationship. But maintaining relationships, analyzed the French newspaper Le Monde a year ago, faces many complicated challenges. For example, Algiers' long-time rival Morocco fears that a rapprochement between France and Algeria could undermine its own claims to Western Sahara. In order to maintain this, Morocco could also use migration as a means of pressure and reduce its involvement in border controls, according to Le Monde.

Russia – an important partner for Algeria and a leading arms supplier – could also act here as a obstacle come into play. It is hardly in Moscow's interest if Algeria cooperates more closely with a leading European state that is supporting the government in Kiev in the Ukraine war.

A lot now depends all the more on the visit Tebbounes in France, says Algeria expert Ghebouli. “The visit will have a significant impact on future relations,” he says. “It could promote cooperation between the two countries. But if things go badly, relations could become even more tense than before.”

France is committed to its history