Criticism in France over rapprochement with Algeria

Xavier Driencourt, diplomat and former French ambassador, takes stock of Tebboune's mandate - denouncing repression and censorship - and warns of the consequences that the current political situation in the North African country could have for Paris

AFP/LUDOVIC MARIN  -   French President Emmanuel Macron and Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune at a joint press conference at the presidential palace in Algiers on 25 August 2022

"Algeria is collapsing, will it drag France down with it?" This was the headline of a column by the diplomat and former French ambassador to Algiers, Xavier Driencourt, in the famous French daily Le Figaro just a few days ago. Through an analysis of the three years of Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune's mandate, Driencourt reveals the reality in the Maghreb country and warns of the reprisals that his current political situation could have in France.

First of all, Driencourt underlines his "friendship with Algeria" and his "respect for the Algerian people". For this reason, he believes it is necessary to "recall some facts about the political reality and its consequences". The French diplomat was ambassador to Algiers twice, between 2008 and 2012, and then between 2017 and 2020.

Driencourt was categorical: "Algeria is collapsing before our eyes and is dragging France down with it". The French diplomat looks back to the 2019 protests, known as the Algerian 'Hirak', which brought an end to Abdelaziz Bouteflika's rule. The fall of Bouteflika's "corrupt regime" - as Driencourt describes it - after strong protests heralded a new democratic, progressive and stable system.

However, with Tebboune's rise to power, those hopes were dashed. "The regime has shown its true face", writes Driencourt. Here, the former ambassador refers to the "brutal" Algerian military system - trained in the methods of the former Soviet Union -, the hardships of the Algerian people and the repression. A repression that, as Driencourt points out, is "elaborated and implemented by an army that never ceases to glorify the battles against France, the 'eternal enemy'".

FOTO/ ARCHIVO - Algeria's President Abdelmadjid Tebboune
Repression and censorship 

According to Amnesty International figures, 266 activists and protesters were held in Algerian prisons in May last year for participating in the Hirak movement, denouncing elite corruption or expressing solidarity with detainees. Many of the activists have been accused of "harming" security, "undermining national unity", "offending" the authorities or spreading false news and terrorism.

Driencourt points out that the country's prisons are full of politicians, civil servants and military personnel linked to the former regime and journalists critical of the government. "COVID-19 had already allowed the army to begin political cleansing; international circumstances such as the war in Ukraine allowed it to set it in motion for good," he explains. 

REUTERS/RAMZI BOUDINA - In May last year, 266 activists and protesters were held in Algerian prisons.

The diplomat recalls the resistance of the Algerian press during the country's bloody civil war between 1991 and 2002. Meanwhile, under Bouteflika, the national press was noted for its "sarcasm, criticism and irony". Today, however, it is "muzzled", with journalists detained or deprived of their passports, and media outlets closed or under tutelage.

Radio M and AlgériePart have been the latest to suffer from the government's harsh censorship. In late December, the radio station was banned and its director, Algerian journalist Ihsane El Kadi, arrested. AlgériePart was also accused of receiving funds from abroad to spread false news with the aim of "destabilising the country". The Tebboune government's obsession with alleged threats from abroad has also led it to dissolve charitable organisations such as the Catholic Caritas, accused of receiving foreign funds. 

Driencourt believes that the key to Algiers is "to make the world believe that Algeria may not be a Western-style democracy, but that it is moving, according to its own methods, towards an authoritarian and police system, but without ever becoming a dictatorship".

In 2024, Algeria and France will be involved in a "new and inevitable crisis".

"We think we know Algeria because we have colonised it, but Algeria knows us much better", writes the diplomat on the complicated Franco-Algerian relations. Regarding the current ties between Algiers and Paris, Driencourt predicts that 2023 will be, after last year's official trips, "a time of euphoria". However, he also assures that they should not "get their hopes up" too high in France, as in 2024, on the eve of Algeria's presidential elections, both nations will witness a "new and inevitable crisis", as anti-French discourse "is the basis of a successful electoral campaign".

"Out of convenience or opportunism, but above all out of blindness, we in Paris close our eyes to the Algerian reality," Driencourt continues. "We pretend to believe that Algerian power is legitimate if not democratic, that the anti-French discourse is a necessary but transitory evil and that democracy is an apprenticeship that takes time". While the former ambassador speaks of "blindness" - which he considers a "historical mistake" - he recalls that the Algerian military "have no qualms or scruples when it comes to France". 

PHOTO/AFP - Combination of images of French President Emmanuel Macron and Algeria's President Abdelmadjid Tebboune

Another aspect that, as Driencourt explains, will have an impact on France will be the consequences of the political situation in the Arab country. "Algeria is going badly, much worse than analysts or the few authorised journalists think," says the diplomat. "45 million Algerians have only one obsession: to leave and flee," he adds.

Driencourt points out that "countless" people apply for visas for the sole purpose of making a one-way trip and settling in France, where he recalls that many Algerians have family. As a result, the former ambassador believes that "few people will stay in Algeria", which means that France will have to face "massive immigration, a conquering Islamism and the ghettoisation of the suburbs".

"France is facing a double paradox: on the one hand, that of an alliance, previously unnatural, between an anti-French army and Islamists who hate us", concludes Driencourt, who assures that Algeria "has won the fight against its former coloniser"

AFP/LUDOVIC MARIN - "We think we know Algeria because we have colonised it, but Algeria knows us much better," writes Driencourt on complicated Franco-Algerian relations

The pro-government media and members of the government have condemned Driencourt's column. Algerian diplomat and former ambassador to Spain, Abdelaziz Rahabi, said Algerians were 'the only ones authorised' to criticise the country and branded Driencourt's speech as 'extreme right-wing'.

Saleh Goujil, president of the Algerian National Assembly, accused the French diplomat of spreading "slander and lies about the situation in the country" and called on members of parliament to mobilise to confront what he described as "new colonialism".