Buddying up to Bouteflika

Buddying up to Bouteflika
Analysis: A visit to Algeria by the French president shows relations at their warmest for decades. It's all about money and fighting common enemies, says George Joffe.
5 min read
19 Jun, 2015
Hollande admitted a transition of president was inevitable in Algeria [Getty]
Last Monday, France's president, Francois Hollande, dropped into Algiers for a lightning eight-hour visit to see his new friend, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, president of Algeria.

The visit had originally been billed as a discussion of economic relations between the two countries - France is Algeria's major trade partner, although now under pressure from China - but turned out to be about security instead.

Nonetheless, trade between the two countries totalled $12 billion in 2014, 7,000 French companies export to Algeria and 450 are established there, including Alstom, Lafarge, Danone, Renault and Suez.

Just before the French president arrived, the Libyan government in Bayda announced that a US drone strike had killed Mokhtar Belmokhtar and several senior extremist leaders in an attack on a farm in Ajedabiya, 160km west of Benghazi.

Belmokhtar had been responsible for the attack on the Algerian gas facility at In Amenas in January 2013 and had long been a target of US, French and Algerian security.

He has frequently been the subjedct of assassination attempts but has always managed to survive and, according to his hosts at the meeting, Ansar al-Sharia, the latest attack was no exception.

Hollande, however, was a little more sanguine, although US sources have so far not confirmed their success.

Nonetheless, his perception that the purpose of his meeting with his Algerian counterpart had switched from economics to security was not misplaced; just before his arrival, a double suicide bombing in the Chadian capital, N'Jamena, underlined the increasingly threatening posture of extremist violence in northern and central Africa.

There, 23 people died in an attack almost certainly carried out by the Nigerian group, Boko Haram, in protest against Chadian moves against the group in northern Nigeria and western Chad. Algeria and France also share parallel concerns over the chaos in Libya, despite France's role in creating the crisis there and then walking away from its implications.

Although the two countries still differ on the tactics to be used against extremist groups, there is an increasing coincidence of interests over the overall strategy.
     The countries differ on the tactics to be used against extremist groups, but there is an increasing coincidence of interests.

Thus Algeria condemns France's willingness to join the UK and the US in eliminating the Gaddafi regime in Libya in 2011 and dislikes French activism in confronting extremists in northern Mali through Operation Serval in early 2013, but is still prepared to grant France overflight rights and refuelling facilities to support its operations there.

There is close co-operation between the two countries, including the exchange of intelligence, over the activities of extremists in the region and France particularly appreciated the rapid Algerian response in eliminating Jund al-Khilifah, the first group in the region to declare its affiliation with the Islamic State group, and which beheaded a French national, Herve Gourdel, in Kabylia last September.

Paris has also been impressed by Algeria's success in persuading the dissident Tuaregs of Mali to come to terms with the government in Bamako over their autonomous region of Azawad, a move that has helped to isolate the extremists in the north of the country.

They, in turn, have been increasingly marginalised by French military action, just as the terrorist groups in Kabylia, from which they originate, have been isolated by Algerian army action.

At the same time, the role of Algerian extremist leaders in Mali has been increasingly sidelined as Mauritanians and West Africans have taken over the groups there - al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Mujao and Ansar ad-Din, not to speak of Belmokhtar's own dissident group, al-Mouthalimun.

The domestic dimension

In effect, Hollande, who had served an internship in the French embassy in Algiers in 1978 and who undertook a very successful state visit in 2012, has been able to improve relations with Algeria to their most cordial level since the North African state gained independence from France in 1962, after a vicious anti-colonial war.

He was, of course, building on the visit by a predecessor, Jacques Chirac, in 2003, the first French presidential visit since the war, but nonetheless the visit has been a personal triumph for the current French president.

Of course, as part of his success, he has had to draw a veil over the current domestic political problems that Algeria faces. The most important of these involves the presidential succession, for the Algerian president suffered a debilitating stroke in April 2013 and there have been serious questions about his ability to rule despite those supporters who insisted that he stand for re-election last year.

Indeed, after a two-hour discussion with the president and another with prime minister Abdelmalek Sellal, Hollande faced a news conference alone in which he praised the Algerian leader's mental acuity, despite his physical impairment.

He did, however, admit that a transition was inevitable, as a natural consequence of the passage of time. Indeed, in Algeria today, this is an acute issue.

Ahmed Ouyahia, the leader of the Rassemblement Nationale Democratique, a pro-presidential party, has called for the revival of a political coalition to support the presidency, a call which Ahmed Saadani, the leader of the Front de Liberation Nationale, Algeria's largest political party, has rejected as an infringement on its own political autonomy.

He had been bolstered in his rejection by a letter of congratulation from the deputy defence minister, Gaid Salah, after he was re-elected to his post, ostensibly with covert presidential support but to universal criticism of political interference from the army.

Domestic tensions in Algeria, in short, remain as high as ever and the future of the presidency remains their touchstone.