France-Algeria: delicate mission for Le Drian in Algiers

An Algerian daily, Reporters, sums up the visit of Jean-Yves Le Drian to Algiers on Thursday and Friday in Algiers quite well: “Le Drian in Algiers, 48 ​​hours for the adjustments”.

This third visit by the head of French diplomacy to Algeria since early 2020 and the start of the mandate of President Abdelmadjid Tebboune wants to confirm the trend towards appeasement between Algiers and Paris after months of tensions during the political crisis of 2019 which shook the Algeria and the few moments of tension in the bilateral relationship.

One way to consolidate the understanding between the two presidents, MM. Macron and Tebboune, who often exchange directly or indirectly, on internal issues, but especially on regional issues. “It’s going very well at the highest level,” says an official Algerian source. On the French side, no echoes, communication is reduced to traditional protocol postures.

However, there are still outstanding questions, such as economic cooperation or the memorial question. There, there will be ‘adjustments’ to be made, on both sides, because we sometimes have the impression that Paris has not yet understood that things are changing here. “

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Far from the pikes exchanged between Algiers and Paris

It is perhaps to respond to this mistrust that Mr. Le Drian began his statement after his meeting with the Algerian president by addressing the very sensitive internal Algerian political context.

” President [Abdelmadjid] Tebboune has displayed its ambitions for institutional reforms to strengthen governance, the balance of powers and freedoms (…) It is up to Algerians and to them alone to translate the aspirations that were expressed with civility and dignity into a political vision with institutions capable of making it a reality, ”declared Mr. Le Drian, thus providing a sort of tacit support from France for the roadmap of the Algerian authorities, contested by part of the opposition. In less than two weeks, Algerians are called to vote by referendum on the constitutional revision project, which, according to the new Algerian power, “will meet the aspirations of the hirak”, the popular movement which brought down the Bouteflika system in the spring of 2019 .

We are far from the spikes exchanged between Algiers and Paris the day after the Algerian presidential election of December 12, 2019: France still hesitating at the time between the agenda of the Algerian system and that of the opposition and the hirak. But the line “Hard liner” de Le Drian and Elyos ‘pragmatism’ ended up, it seems, by stabilizing tension on the Algiers-Paris line. Thursday, in Algiers, Le Drian could calmly congratulate himself at the presidential palace: “I am happy to note that our bilateral relationship is experiencing new impetus. “

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The central memorial question

A momentum also carried by the memorial project started by the two countries with the appointment of historians Benjamin Stora, on the French side, and Abdelmadjid Chikhi, on the Algerian side, to each work on this file. “We hope that the two historians accomplish their work in truth, serenity and appeasement to resolve these problems which poison our political relations, the business climate and good understanding”, declared the Algerian president last July. The return of the mortuary remains of Algerian resistance martyrs by France last July deeply marked this “new impetus”. Moreover, Thursday in Algiers, Le Drian did not miss the opportunity to address the question: “President Macron began in 2017 a process of lucidity on the history of colonization and the war in Algeria. He demonstrated through strong acts such as the handing over to Algeria of the mortuary remains of Algerian combatants kept at the Musée de l’Homme ”.

These convergences and other satisfacit nevertheless come up against other issues: the economy and the vision of resolving regional crises.

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The reduced French economic field

Several observers are worried about what they see as a trend: French companies well established in Algeria are starting to lose their markets. The management of the Algiers metro will no longer be ensured by RATP-El Djazaïr (a subsidiary of RATP-Développement), while Suez is losing its management contract for Seaal, the Algiers water authority. Mention should be made here of the tensions around Total and the refusal of the Algerian government to authorize it to buy out the Algerian assets of Anadarko or the delays in opening a PSA Peugeot-Citroën factory in Oran. And again Alstom, which is struggling to win new contracts for the construction of tramways whereas, as the letter emphasizes Confidential Maghreb concerning the construction industry “the French offer has practically disappeared, weakened by the Turkish and Chinese competition”. It should also be noted that the new law on hydrocarbons, with its tax incentives, puts the French majors like Total in the face of stiff competition.

As a reminder, Mr. Le Drian’s visit comes a few days after the tour in Algeria of a high-level delegation from the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party to sign an important economic and technical cooperation agreement in Algiers. An agreement that acts, according to observers, as the first step in the integration of Algeria into the new Chinese Silk Road.

These files are on the negotiating table and Mr. Le Drian’s visit to Algiers also allows the situation to be updated in relation to the commitments and promises of both parties recorded during the 6e session of the Algerian-French Joint Economic Committee, held in Algiers on March 12, 2020.

“The question for us is not to automatically exclude France from contracts in Algeria, but we must arrive at a new form of agreement on economic issues different from the past, from the time when under Bouteflika, certain contracts benefited the plunder of the oligarchy ”, specifies an official Algerian source on condition of anonymity.

On the French side, we rely a lot on symbolic gestures, mainly linked to the memorial file, to “appease” Algiers and try to win through nationalist feelings what economic pragmatism has not been able to glean, as the analysis of the Italian agency Agenzia Nova.

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Libya: Algiers is wary of the Paris-Cairo axis

Finally, on regional issues and the Malian and Libyan issues, convergence is in form. In Algiers, the head of French diplomacy pleaded for greater involvement of the countries neighboring Libya in the search for a political settlement of the crisis that is shaking this country. Paris is campaigning for the organization of a meeting of the neighbors of Libya and Mr. Le Drian must visit these different countries to make this project a reality. But this approach is contradicted by the latest initiative launched by Paris on the Libyan dossier.

Through the voice of its Ambassador in Cairo, Stéphane Romatet, France announced, on October 10, launching a new political initiative for Libya in coordination with Egypt. However, the two countries are proven supporters of Marshal Khalifa Haftar (a close friend of the former Minister of Defense Le Drian), one of the parties to the conflict and their initiative may interfere with the next inter-Libyan meeting scheduled in Tunisia under the aegis of the United Nations. “France considers Egypt as a main partner for the stability of the region and the settlement of conflicts”, declared the French diplomat in Cairo. However, Algeria and Egypt maintain contradictory lines of conduct on the settlement of the Libyan crisis. As a reminder, Cairo threatened to intervene militarily in Libya and the Egyptian Parliament voted in July for a possible armed intervention in Libya if the forces of the government in Tripoli continue their advance towards the east of the country. Moreover, Algiers is not on the same French line in its anti-Erdogan hostility on the Libyan front or concerning the tensions in the eastern Mediterranean. Even US Secretary of State Mark Esper avoided “pushing” Algiers against his Chinese and Russian allies and his Turkish friend during his last visit.

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Mali: the “bad signal”

On the Malian issue, Algiers and Paris seem to converge in demanding the strict implementation of the peace agreements concluded in 2015 under the supervision of Algeria.

“In Mali we, like Algeria, welcomed the establishment of a transition. This should lead to the holding of open, free and transparent elections and the reestablishment of constitutional order. Like Algeria, we call for the overall application of the Algiers peace agreement, ”Le Drian said on Thursday.

But this convergence of points of view comes up against the latest developments in Mali with the recent release of French hostage Sophie Pétronin and the release, by Bamako, of several dozen armed Islamist elements. “A case badly perceived by Algiers, whose anti-terrorism doctrine is not to subscribe to the demand for ransom or to respond favorably to the blackmail of hostage-taking”, underlines the daily Reporters which speaks of a “bad signal sent to terrorist groups active in Mali and in the Sahelo-Sahelian strip”.

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