French President Francois Hollande visited France's former colony of Algeria on Thursday, setting the stage for growing cooperation between the two states.
Algiers has had a complicated relationship with Paris ever since its annexation by France beginning in 1848. Since gaining independence in 1962, following nearly eight years of bloody fighting, Algiers has demanded a formal apology from Paris. Many were hoping Hollande's visit — his first state trip to a non-EU country since winning the presidential election in July — would result in such a statement.
Instead of a formal apology, Hollande admitted atrocities had been committed in the past and offered a "strategic partnership on an equal-to-equal basis," which, while falling short of an official apology, still marks a historic occasion in ties between France and its former colonial possession.
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Ruled for decades by a nationalist, secular military regime, Algerian President Abdel Aziz Bouteflika began a series of calculated maneuvers that have balanced the country's powerful military and intelligence services against one another while increasing the role of the civilian political class. As governments in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt fell during the upheaval of the Arab Spring, Algeria has made slow steps toward revamping its economy. It has worked to attract greater foreign investment aimed at addressing chronic unemployment and revitalized its aging oil and natural gas fields.
Hollande's visit comes after several months of increased French diplomatic outreach to Algeria, ostensibly regarding the growing instability in northern Mali, which threatens not only France's former colonial territories but also its strategic economic and energy assets in the region. While the presence of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb does represent a regional threat, France is trying to engage with Algiers during a period of internal political restructuring since Algeria is quickly emerging as North Africa's most stable and dynamic country.
But Hollande's attempts at extending an olive branch do not come out of a sense of post-colonial guilt or French altruism. Algeria is a major supplier of natural gas to Europe, and is currently one of the largest suppliers of liquified natural gas to France. The country is poised to dramatically increase liquified natural gas exports to Europe in 2013 following an expansion of its production facilities, filling the gap from decreasing North Sea production.
On his visit to Algeria, Hollande was accompanied by a delegation of French business leaders, including executives from auto manufacturer Renault, which has agreed to build a manufacturing plant in Algeria that will produce 75,000 cars per year. The two countries also agreed to a five-year joint development plan aimed at boosting economic, agricultural and military cooperation.
Algeria remains the single largest source of emigrants to France, with Algerians making up more than 15 percent of all immigrants living in France. A lack of jobs and rising economic inequality have led to nearly 200,000 Algerians per year leaving for France, which provides Algerian nationals easy visas and a social welfare system under the Evian Accords of 1962 that ended the French-Algerian war. Problems with social integration persist, however, as evidenced by the civil unrest that shook French suburbs in 2005.
Improving Algeria's economy not only makes financial sense for Paris, but also helps improve the social challenges facing both countries. As France's own economy begins to slow, it can no longer afford to keep subsidizing immigrants of Algerian descent on such a large scale. The failure to integrate Algerian immigrants has resulted in similar high unemployment rates in France, and Paris hopes to promote situations that encourage Algerians to stay in Algeria. By working to improve the Algerian economy and exporting jobs, France will help disincentivize would-be Algerian immigrants.
Furthermore, French manufacturers benefit from the low cost of Algerian labor and the country's proximity to continental Europe. Given the current state of the French economy, building up regional economies will also help to create new destinations for French exports as France's domestic consumption decreases.
This is an unprecedented moment in Algeria's history. With its regional competitors all dealing with domestic struggles, Algiers is in a position to leverage its stability and potential security cooperation in exchange for greater investment, economic growth and recognition of its emerging regional role.