By Lamine Chikhi and Michel Rose
French President Emmanuel Macron hopes his three-day trip to Algeria from Thursday will end a diplomatic row and allow him to develop his relationship with young Algerians, but the North African country’s leaders may prove hard to win over.
President Abdelmadjid Tebboune wants solid investment commitments – which seem unlikely to be announced this week – and for Macron to atone for comments he made last year about Algeria’s history and its ruling elite.
For France, better relations with its former colony are growing more important because an energy shortage due to Russia’s war in Ukraine has raised demand for North African gas, and because of growing migration across the Mediterranean.
Algeria meanwhile wants to take advantage of high energy prices to secure big contracts and investment projects, as it has already done with Italy and Turkey, locking in revenues that will help it ride out any lean years in future.
“Algeria wants strong economic relations and a serious partnership,” said an Algerian official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Macron’s delegation will include the heads of hydrocarbons company Engie and tech company Free, but there will be no big business contracts, the Elysee said.
When Macron last visited Algeria in 2017 he was warmly greeted by young Algerians eager to contrast his youth with the old age of their own leaders and pleased he had described French colonial rule there as a “crime against humanity”.
“We will not forget what he said when he was asked about the war in Algeria,” said Nourreddine Ayoub on an Algiers street on Wednesday.
Macron seems keen to build on that goodwill this week, with a planned visit to commemorate Algerian “martyrs” of independence from France, and to a breakdance show and a shop famed for its role in North African “Rai” pop music.
“The president has chosen to focus on the future during this visit,” said an adviser to Macron.
But Macron’s long-stated desire to move on from the ugly legacy of French colonial rule in Algeria, and his frustration at what he sees as the Algerian authorities’ obsession with it, caused a big breach last year that may overshadow his trip.
In comments on the election trail, he suggested Algeria’s national identity was forged under French rule and that the country’s leadership had rewritten the history of the independence struggle based on a hatred of France.
That led Algeria’s leaders to withdraw their ambassador for consultations and to close their airspace to French aircraft – complicating transport routes for France’s military mission in the Sahel.
Mood music in Algiers suggests Tebboune and his military allies may still be annoyed. State media – whose tone often reflects official thinking – has published stories critical of France in the run-up to Macron’s visit.
A state news agency report this week quoted Algerian organisations demanding that Macron stop hosting groups in France that they see as being hostile to Algeria and backed by its main regional rival Morocco.
Meanwhile, conservative politicians have voiced annoyance at Macron’s decision to bring the bishop of Algiers and France’s chief rabbi to visit a colonial-era cemetery for non-Muslims.
Abderazak Makri, an opposition leader, said the move appeared aimed at encouraging Algeria to normalise ties with Israel.
“Algeria’s positions are well known. They won’t change … France is a secular state. We don’t know why a religious man is in the delegation,” said the Algerian official.