Eye of the Storm: Algeria bids France 'au revoir'

Paris is no longer a heavyweight in French-speaking Africa.

taheri88 (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
Taking time off from America-bashing, the French elite is directing its anger at a new target: Algeria. The reason is that Algeria, having promised to sign a treaty of friendship and cooperation with France three years ago, has decided that it is no longer interested. The ostensible cause of the Algerian change of mind was a decision by the French parliament last year to rewrite school textbooks to include "studying positive aspects of colonialism" in former French colonies, notably Algeria. The idea so incensed the Algerians that they downgraded contacts with Paris and put the proposed treaty on hold. Moreover, Algeria said it would boycott the much-hyped Summit of French-Speaking Nations scheduled for September. The snub was particularly hurtful to Jacques Chirac, who had planned the do as the final bouquet in his 12-year presidential term which ends in April 2007. IN THE past few months the authorities in Algiers have closed more than 40 French-language private schools on the grounds that they represent a threat to "Algerian national identity." At the same time they have authorized a dozen private English-language schools. Many in the Algerian ruling elite now send their offspring to Britain or the United States, rather than France, for further education. "We have lost Algeria for a second time," says a retired senior French diplomat. "First to the Soviets in 1962, and now to the Americans." Several factors have contributed to France's loss of influence, which first became apparent in 1993-94, when Algeria faced a murderous Islamist insurrection. Then-president Francois Mitterrand established contacts with the Islamist leadership. He had deluded himself into believing that the global Islamist movement was largely anti-American and anti-Jewish and that he could, given the right conditions, negotiate a modus vivendi with Europe. At a time that the Algerian Islamists were massacring women, children and old people wherever they could, Mitterrand was publicly signaling his readiness to work with any Islamist regime that might emerge in Algiers. Mitterrand was not alone in his failure to distinguish friend from foe in the Algerian civil war. The French elite saw those resisting the Islamists as somehow "inauthentic," suffering from an "identity crisis" and thus deserving of having their throats slit by the terrorists. By 1995 - having overcome the Islamists - the Algerians decided that they had to look elsewhere for friends. Top of their list were the two "Anglo-Saxon" powers that the French blame for most of the evil in the world: the United States and Britain. Algerian embassies in Washington and London were upgraded and expanded, and senior diplomats assigned as ambassadors. In the decade that followed, trade with Britain almost tripled and high-level visits were exchanged. Trade also brought Algeria closer to the Anglo-Saxons - last year the US imported some $13 billion worth of oil from Algeria. And in 1994 the US also established formal links with the Algerian armed forces and offered to train some 30 Algerian officers each year. Accords to exchange intelligence regarding the Mediterranean region followed, and several US allies, notably South Korea, trained and helped equip hundreds of Algerians in counter-insurgency tactics. By 2003 Algeria was ready to enter a special partnership with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). In the past two years Algeria has emerged as a key ally in the North African front of the global war against terrorism. NATO sources say Algeria is top of the list of the Arab Mediterranean nations likely to forge even closer ties with the alliance, short of full membership. THE SPECIAL relationship between Algiers and Washington has helped the Bush administration in a number of ways. It has kept a lid on the 30-year-old dispute between Algeria and Morocco over the former Spanish Sahara, allowing the two neighbors to cooperate in tracking down terrorists operating throughout North Africa. The special relationship has also helped persuade the Arab League to end its boycott of the new Iraqi regime and accept the fall of Saddam Hussein as a fait accompli. Algeria was the first member of the league to reopen its embassy in liberated Baghdad, paying a heavy human price when Islamists murdered two of its diplomats there. Now there is even talk of Algeria acting as mediator between Washington and Teheran to broker a dialogue and prevent military conflict. According to our sources, the idea has received a "measured welcome" in Teheran but has only been "noted" in Washington. In 1979 Algeria played a similar role in brokering the release of American diplomats held hostage in Iran. In the protocols attached to the accords, signed between the Khomeinist regime and the Carter administration in 1980, Algeria was given the role of monitor and facilitator in promoting eventual normalization between the Islamic Republic and the United States. THE CURRENT crisis in Franco-Algerian relationship is only one of Paris's headaches related to its colonial past. For instance, the role that some African dictators, notably President Omar Bongo of Gabon, have played in financing various French political parties for decades is only now attracting serious attention in France. There are also demands for greater transparency regarding the way French aid to Africa is allocated and spent. At first glance it seems that more than $100 billion worth of French aid to Africa, disbursed since 1960, has vanished without much of a trace. Despite recent revelations regarding the systemic corruption of French relations with Africa - including scandals concerning French state-owned oil companies - the full picture has yet to emerge. Rather than get angry at Algeria, what France needs is a new Africa policy designed to respond to the continent's aspirations to democracy and economic development. This is preferable to merely seeking an elusive stability which, in practice, means propping up the despots and enriching corrupt French businessmen and politicians. The writer, an Iranian author and journalist, is editor of the Paris-based Politique Internationale.