Algeria’s National Organisation of war veterans, ONM (Organisation Nationale des Moudjahidine) was particularly outspoken in its criticism.
Through its secretary general, Mohand Ouamar Benelhadj, this powerful organisation representing the interests of veterans of the Algerian War of Independence described Macron’s comments on the colonial-era remembrance initiative as “untrue”. “We cannot reconcile our memory of the past with France’s,” said Benelhadj.
Addressing the issue of collective history, memory and the colonial past, Macron said that France cannot apologise for, as some Algerian officials continue to demand, the wrongs committed in Algeria under French colonial rule.
“France, unilaterally and without eliciting any reaction in recent decades, has made many overtures on this issue,” said the French president. “It’s not about apologising […] What we need to do is carry out historical work and reconcile our memories of the past. We have to confront history head on.”
Even though Algeria and France each agreed to name a historian to work on this collective memory project, the issue continues to be a source of friction and tension between the two countries. But what really drew people’s ire – more than any remarks about the past – was the French president’s affirmation of support for Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune and vision of the Hirak movement and the transition process.
Macron praised his Algerian counterpart’s “courage” and said that he would do anything in his power to help the leader during the transition period, one year after his controversial election. These remarks were perceived as a direct intrusion into Algeria’s affairs, and as such a breach of the principle of sovereignty and independence, a sensitive topic if ever there were one on this side of the Mediterranean. It was as though Paris was allowing itself to adopt a paternalistic posture towards the Algerian president.
What’s more, some Algerians continue to be distrustful of the current occupant of the El Mouradia Palace. The election, dating back to 12 December 2019, which propelled Tebboune to the presidency was extensively boycotted by voters, a large swath of whom are still calling for the end of the system in place and real democratic changeover.
The most recent referendum on the new constitution put forward by the Algerian head of state illustrates this kind of sentiment and trust deficit that have plagued him since his election. Described as the cornerstone of a “new Algeria” and the government’s answer to Hirak demands, the constitutional reform fell far short of expectations in terms of voter turnout. Almost 77% of voters skipped the referendum.
A ‘transition’ that isn’t going well
Then, there’s the fact that the French president’s use of the word “transition” rubbed Algerians the wrong way since it comes at an uncertain, chaotic point in the country’s political life. Infected with the novel coronavirus, Algeria’s president is still hospitalised in Germany, where he was admitted on 28 October.
While officials maintain that his health is improving, his extended absence as well as the mystery surrounding his illness have aroused doubts, uncertainties and concerns about his ability to perform his duties once he returns to Algiers.
Other positions expressed in the past by French officials – ones that seemed harmless enough on the face of it – have sparked controversy. Take, for instance, François Hollande’s comment, following an audience with former president Abdelaziz Bouteflika in June 2015, about the then head of state’s “vitality”, at a time when he was suffering serious after effects arising from his stroke in 2013.
There again, the French ex-president’s remarks were perceived as an intrusion into Algeria’s internal affairs and an affirmation of support for a president who at that time was already considered disabled by his health problems and unfit to lead the country. Bouteflika’s preoccupation with standing for a fifth term in February 2019 ultimately gave rise to the grassroots movement that led to his ouster two months later.
Macron’s statements about this revolution, which the COVID-19 pandemic ground to a halt, came across as ambivalent to Algerians. “You cannot change a country, institutions and power structures in a few months,” he told Jeune Afrique. “There was a revolutionary movement, which continues to this day, although it takes a different form now. There is also a desire for stability, especially in the most rural parts of Algeria. No effort should be spared to make this transition successful.”
In thinly veiled terms, the French president recommended that Algerians show patience to ensure a smooth transition from the old system to a new form of governance, one that Algerians have never stopped calling for since the outset of the grassroots protest movement in February 2019.
In addition to being seen as paternalistic, Macron’s stance makes a distinction between those seeking that all Hirak demands be met and those who opted to throw in the towel by accepting President Tebboune’s legitimacy.
Co-opting Kamel Daoud’s views
Macron’s comments drew on the journalist and writer Kamel Daoud’s conception of Algeria’s urban-rural divide. In one of his columns for the French weekly magazine Le Point, Daoud expresses his view that Algerians living in the hinterlands, far from Algiers and big city life, voted for Tebboune in December 2019. Moreover, he argues that, yearning for stability, such voters distanced themselves from the protest movement.
In his column, which caused a big stir on social media, Daoud explains that the original Hirak movement, the one that precipitated the end of Bouteflika and his issaba (“gang”), is over and that kicking leaders out just for the sake of it isn’t a political platform. The writer demonstrates his argument by pointing out that the street protests didn’t prevent the most recent presidential election from going forward. That Macron has co-opted Daoud’s line of argument about the existence of two groups of citizenry, those in urban areas and those in the rural part of the country, doesn’t help him win over a certain segment of the population.
To be sure, the French president’s remarks to the media should be put into perspective in that they aren’t particularly significant and won’t lead to a new crisis between Algiers and Paris.
Nevertheless, the situation speaks to how the slightest comment out of the mouth of a French president can make waves on the other side of the Mediterranean. A French president can’t say whatever he wants about Algeria.
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