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France silent, watchful as Algeria protests grow

Elizabeth Bryant
March 8, 2019

A painful colonial past and strategic ties guide France's low-key response to Algeria's anti-government demonstrations — even as critics at home call on Paris to side with the street. Elizabeth Bryant reports from Paris.

Protesters in Paris
Some protesters told the Algerian government to 'get lost,' saying the 'people deserve better'Image: DW/E. Bryant

Hours before Algeria's ailing 82-year-old leader Abdelaziz Bouteflika controversially submitted yet another re-election bid, the country's diaspora was out in force in France, joining the swelling anti-government protests across the Mediterranean.

Wrapped in flags and brandishing messages like "get lost" to the authoritarian regime and Bouteflika's 20-year reign in Algiers, thousands crammed the Place de la Republique in downtown Paris recently, in a rowdy call for political change. 

"We French-Algerians completely support the Algerian people," said Madjid Messaoudene, a local lawmaker here. "And we know they're watching, and that makes us proud."

French response muted

But at the Elysee Presidential palace just a few kilometers away, the reaction of official France has been much more muted. Normally loquacious President Emmanuel Macron, who has been quick to champion causes ranging from European unity to the climate change battle, has been strikingly silent when it comes to the crisis now roiling a key former colony. 

"Algeria is a sovereign country," Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said in a television interview Wednesday, repeating the government line aired in various forms in recent days. "It's up to Algerians to decide on their future."

For now at least — and despite the tens of thousands of Algerians still taking to the streets — some suggest it's unlikely Paris will be more outspoken, at least for now. 

"France is very sensitive about being seen as doing anything resembling interference," when it comes to Algeria, says Andrew Lebovich, North Africa expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

"In part because they're concerned about making the situation worse; but also because I don't think they really know either what's going to happen, so they're also hedging their bets a bit."

Inside Europe: France's relationship with Algeria

Yet with Algeria's protests showing no sign of ending, some are calling on Paris to get off the fence and side with the street. Critics point to France's support for Venezuela's opposition movement, accusing Macron's government of double standards. They also warn France risks being on the wrong side of history. 

"France's stance towards Algeria is dominated by fear" Europe 1 radio commentator Jean-Michel Aphatie wrote in an editorial this week, referring to concerns over a possible Islamist government coming to power.

"Let's hope," he added, "that we won't have to pay dearly for the error in analysis that we're making today." 

Colonial past still haunts relations

France's rocky history with Algeria helps explain its hands-off stance today. Successive French leaders have refused to formally apologize for decades of colonialism, which ended in 1962, after Algeria's bloody and protracted war of independence.

France kept a low profile during Algeria's brutal 1990s civil war, which pitted Islamist militants against the military-backed government. But the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) nonetheless hijacked an Air France plane and staged several terrorist attacks in Paris, blaming French authorities for siding with the Algerian regime. 

Protester wearing t-shirt reading 'against a fifth term'
Protesters are against a fifth term for President Bouteflika, who has been in power for 20 yearsImage: DW/E. Bryant

"The colonial past has made diplomatic relations between the two countries, Algeria and France, very sensitive," Brahim Oumansour, North Africa analyst at the French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs, or IRIS, told DW.

"Any action or speech coming from the current French government or President Macron would be interpreted as interference, both by the Algerian government and by the Algerian population."

Macron must also worry about his audience at home. Running for election in 2017, he was sharply criticized when he called France's occupation of Algeria a crime against humanity. But visiting Algeria as president later that year, he called on Algeria's youth to leave the colonial past behind and to invest in their country rather than demanding visas to France. 

Strategic partnership

While the past looms large in bilateral ties, today, Algeria is considered a key French economic partner and an important ally in curbing migration from sub-Saharan Africa, and Islamist terrorism in the Sahel. Such priorities risk being compromised, some observers say, if the North African country tips into turmoil — a scenario the Algerian government now uses as a warning to protesters.

Demonstrators in Algiers
Thousands have taken to the streets in Algeria in recent weeks to protest a fifth term for BouteflikaImage: Getty Images/AFP/R. Kramdi

"A destabilization of Algeria would open the door to a political unknown," historian Benjamin Stora said in a radio interview. 

"Instability in Algeria could affect regional stability and trigger tensions with the European Union and its neighbors," Oumansour agrees, but he believes such a scenario is unlikely. 

"I think people underestimate the stability of the Algerian state," said Lebovich of the European Council on Foreign Relations, noting that Algeria's protesters, too, do not want a return to the dark 1990s. "They don't want the system, the power, but they don't want instability," he believes.

Algeria's influential diaspora 

Both countries are also aware of another powerful voice — that of Algeria's sizable diaspora, whose numbers in France count in the several millions, experts say, when including illegal immigrants and dual nationals.

Abdelaziz Bouteflika
Bouteflika, seen here in 2017, suffered a stroke in 2013. Many believe he is no longer fit for officeImage: Getty Images/AFP/R. Kramdi

They include popular Algerian businessman Rachid Nekkaz, who has tapped a cousin to run in Algeria's April presidential elections, after his candidacy was barred on dual citizenship grounds. 

"Algeria's diaspora in France can weigh in on the situation; there are politicians who are active here in France," according to Oumansour, who nonetheless believes many, like Nekkaz, will fail to get a sizable grassroots following in Algeria.

Meanwhile, some Algerians in France are calling on Paris to get off the sidelines.  "France needs to help the Algerian people liberate themselves from this mafia," said Djamel Maieddine, who joined the anti-Bouteflika protests in Paris. "The French government needs to understand that we count in the millions, not thousands."