Algeria-France: When Macron shook things up… including Bouteflika

In depth
This article is part of the dossier: Africa, according to Macron

By Farid Alilat

Posted on Wednesday, 6 April 2022 16:15

On 6 December 2017, French President Emmanuel Macron made a whirlwind visit to Algiers. Eager to distinguish himself from his predecessors, he not afraid to break taboos or offend his interlocutors. Has it changed anything?

This is part 2 of an 8-part series

Macron had already been to Algiers in February 2017 as economy minister, but in December he returned as President of the French Republic.

The visit lasted less than 24 hours and was different from previous trips by former presidents Chirac, Hollande and Sarkozy. Macron was set on doing things differently from his predecessors. He wanted to go out to the streets to meet Algerians, talk with civil society actors, meet one-on-one with Ahmed Gaïd Salah (then chief of staff of the army and deputy minister of defence, now deceased), and above all, do some straight talking with the Algerian leadership.

While preparing for the talks with Macron’s cabinet, the French ambassador in Algiers, Xavier Driencourt, told Algerian officials: “Beware, you’ll be shaken up, just like we were in France after his election. He has a real desire to build a new project with you, but if there is no movement or response from your side, [he] will go elsewhere. He can’t wait until the end of his five-year term to get things moving.”

This diplomat, who would end up leaving Algiers in July 2020 after having worked there from 2008-2012, couldn’t have said it better.

A sensitive, jealous Bouteflika

Even before Macron set foot in Algeria, two things happened that almost compromised the trip. The first involved a request on the part of the Élysée for a meeting with the Algerian army’s chief of staff to discuss the situation in the Sahel. A sensitive and jealous protector of his turf, Abdelaziz Bouteflika (who did not have a close relationship with Gaïd Salah) refused to comply with the request. The French were told that if Macron wished to meet with the highest defence official in Algeria, it could only be with his counterpart, the head of state.

But how would he address highly sensitive issues – defence, security, terrorism in the Sahel – with a president who was partially aphasic and severely handicapped due to the after-effects of a stroke he suffered in 2013? The Élysée insisted and after much hesitation and negotiation, the Algerian presidency finally agreed to the meeting with Salah.

Why are you trying to confuse me with that? Your generation must look to the future!

The second incident occurred on the eve of Macron’s arrival. On Tuesday 5 December, the Algerian embassy in Paris refused to grant visas to some French journalists accredited by the Élysée Palace. Of the 40 or so requests, only 10 or so were approved. The journalists and the president’s office were enraged.

Macron himself called Algerian Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia and asked him to intervene, warning that he would otherwise cancel his trip that was scheduled for the next day. The visas were granted a few hours before the presidential plane took off.

The official visit began with a ‘stroll’ in Algiers. The Élysée Palace had insisted that Macron should meet with the locals alone, without the whole presidential entourage. Chirac, Hollande and Sarkozy had been entitled to meticulously prepared walkabouts with Bouteflika, but Macron did not want that. In any case, the valetudinary Bouteflika no longer left his bunkered residence in Zéralda.

For two hours, Macron wandered between the main post office and the statue of Emir Abdelkader, shaking hands and chatting with passers-by. To one of them, who asked him about colonisation, he said: “Why are you trying to confuse me with that? Your generation must look to the future!” Most of them wound up asking him for visas and Macron was so exasperated that he randomly told the crowd: “A visa is not a life project”. During his meeting with President Bouteflika, he took up the never-ending visa affair.

Without filter or taboos

The stroll through the capital – with its symbolic stop in front of the statue of Emir Abdelkader, the top figure of the Algerian resistance, who spent more than four years (1848-1852) as a prisoner at the Château d’Amboise – lasted longer than expected, disrupting the programme.

Later, Macron had lunch with journalists, writers, young businessmen and NGO representatives at the Villa des Oliviers (the residence of the French ambassador) in Algiers. There, again, the instructions were clear: there would be no government officials, no one who was “obliged” to be there. Macron wanted frank, free exchanges, without filters. He didn’t want to converse with those who spoke for the regime, even if that displeased the powers that be. Macron the transgressor was not there to please: he wanted to show that he was different.

Lunch at the Villa des Oliviers dragged on and the French delegation arrived late at the Zéralda state residence. Macron first spoke with Ahmed Ouyahia, a politician who had served time in prison on several corruption charges. The meeting lasted half an hour.

Here, again, the French president did most of the talking. He explained to his interlocutor that he wanted to set up a Franco-Algerian investment fund to support French companies in Algeria as well as create an Ecole 42 – based on the model set up by Xavier Niel – to train young Algerians in computer coding techniques.

Finally, Macron brought up the visas topic, which had been nagging him ever since his plane landed in Algiers. The French president delved into this issue that was poisoning relations between the two countries and asked his interlocutors for further cooperation in the fight against illegal immigration.

His style was direct. Macron unsettled the Algerian officials who had taken their place around the table in the large room at the Zéralda residence. Clearly these officials were accustomed to staid speeches and formulas that followed the protocol.

Meetings with Gaïd Salah and Bouteflika

After the meeting with Ouyahia, Macron – accompanied by his private chief of staff – isolated himself in another wing of the residence with Salah. The meeting was unprecedented in the history of Paris-Algiers relations.

The Frenchman laid out maps of the Sahel on the table and asked the army chief to cooperate more openly in the fight against armed groups operating in Algeria’s border regions. The tête à tête with the head of the Algerian army did not contribute to improving bilateral cooperation on defence and security – quite the contrary. These matters would deteriorate throughout Macron’s five-year term.

The meeting with President Bouteflika that was held at his medicalised residence as night fell on Algiers was a rather embarrassing, almost surreal moment. It lasted about 40 minutes. Before the Algerian head of state – sunken down in his armchair, looking haggard and struggling to articulate a sentence – Macron barely held back.

He spoke – without filters or notes – about the role of the Algerian army in Mali, the difficulties facing young people, the taboo of the Harkis, pieds-noirs, visas and the Western Sahara. Inside the room, his Algerian interlocutors were stunned by his tone and his frankness. Macron told Bouteflika: “You have to do something with the youth.”

From a young president addressing his octogenarian counterpart, who was still clinging to power despite illness and wear and tear, the message was strong and powerful – almost foreboding. There was probably nothing premonitory about this remark by the French president, but it would be precisely these young people who would end up bringing the revolution to the streets in February 2019, before driving Bouteflika and his clique from power.

More than four years after Macron’s trip, when he is widely tipped to retain the presidency in April 2022, what has changed in the Algiers-Paris relationship? Not much, to tell the truth. Apart from small advances on the memorial question, all the issues raised during that trip are still “work in progress”. Five years later, the French and the Algerians both like to repeat the line about the necessity of rebuilding relations on a new footing.

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