Ah, the warm bath of public affection in the post-colony. French President François Hollande’s visit to Algeria this week was a little odd, on more than one count. Algeria is about the last place you’d think a French head of state would engage in what in American politics is called working the crowd and in French is called a ‘bain de foule,’ or a ‘crowd bath.’ But as le Quotidien d’Oran pointed out, this was not about demonstrating love for the visitor. It was about showing off the authority of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika. By the same token, the two presidents’ display of Mediterranean friendship hardly masked a deep Saharan rivalry.
Hollande had a lot to do in his two days on the far shore of the Mediterranean. Push a new Renault car plant, which the French company needs. Push for more liberal terms for foreign investment, currently limited to minority shares. And pull to keep the growing Algerian economy tied, as much as possible, to the stagnating French one (that means, among other things, readier access to visas for travel between the two countries, which Hollande had already sent his Interior Minister to discuss).
There was of course the old war to talk about, the one that ended fifty years ago when Algeria got its independence. Hollande shied well away from apologizing for French colonial rule in Algeria, but he did recognize that the “colonial system”—to use Jean-Paul Sartre’s phrase—was “deeply unjust, brutal and destructive.” That was not enough to keep a number of parliamentarians from threatening to boycott his speech before a joint session of the Algerian legislature, but it is a step beyond what previous French presidents have said. It is also in keeping with Hollande’s recent acknowledgement of the massacre of Algerian demonstrators in Paris on October 17, 1961. But anyone expecting a stronger statement of remorse was bound to be let down. Hollande was surely less concerned about disappointing his hosts than he was about provoking his compatriots, both those of European settler origin and those of Algerian Muslim ancestry (even if some figure the latter outnumber the former 3 to 1).
There was also a new war to consider. Hollande’s visit happened to coincide with a vote in the UN Security Council authorizing ECOWAS intervention in Mali. For months, Algeria has been opposed to the prospect of foreign, and especially French, action on the territory of its southern neighbor. Algeria tends to think of Mali as its backyard (many Malian Saharans see the relationship in a similar fashion, although they wouldn’t put it quite the same way). The group known as AQMI, which represents the hard-core of the jihadist groups in Mali, has Algerian roots, and—on the other end of the ideological spectrum—Tuareg nationalism has implications beyond Mali’s borders. France is threatened by the former, but has helped to gin up the latter. Meanwhile, the phrase ‘double game’ hardly captures the complexity of Algerian policies towards Mali. Many Malians object to what they consider the ingratitude of President Bouteflika, who spent part of his country’s liberation war in the southern Sahara and whose nom de guerre was “Abdelkader the Malian.” As they see it, Algeria has done little to help and a lot to hinder Mali’s ability to govern its desert territory in the fifty years since. The fact is that although both France and Algeria have been brokers in previous Saharan rebellions, they have never been honest ones, and they have often worked at cross-purposes. This time around, the crisis is deeper than ever, yet the fact that by most accounts the two countries share at least one enemy—AQMI—is not enough to make them friends.
France and Algeria need each other in spite of their shared, sour history. Yet while they cooperate in the Mediterranean, they compete in the Sahara. No amount of handshaking in Algiers and Tlemcen would earn Bouteflika and Hollande a warm welcome in Bamako or Kidal.