France’s relations in Africa have been strained. The setback in Niger jeopardizes the country’s entire positioning in West Africa, both militarily and politically. Unfortunately, for French President Emmanuel Macron, this is not the only place where his administration is facing failure. We might even dare to ask: Is France about to lose North Africa as well? Indeed, relations between France and Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya have been extremely tense.
One significant focus for Macron has been resetting relations with Algeria. The upcoming official visit of Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune to France is intended to mark a new beginning. Regrettably, Macron has not been able to achieve this so far. This has already come at the cost of excellent relations with Morocco. In his efforts to improve ties with Algiers, the French leader has shifted his historical stance on the Western Sahara, straining his relationship with Morocco. For many, he ended up losing Morocco without gaining Algeria.
This might pinpoint the exact problem with French foreign policy. While seeking a complete reset and departure from the old colonialist perception of France, the policy has not been adequately formulated in terms of military, security and economic strategy. As a result, to most African countries within France’s sphere of influence, it appears to be a weak and unappealing offering. The main issue is that despite uttering words of regret for colonialism, France continues to lecture, rather than engage in meaningful relationships. Furthermore, the balance of power has shifted, largely due to Europe’s unmet energy and raw materials needs.
This sentiment might be gleaned from Tebboune’s statement that his state visit to France is “still maintained,” but depends on the Elysee Palace’s schedule, emphasizing that a “state visit has conditions” and “is not a tourist visit.” The visit, initially scheduled for early May, was postponed to June due to concerns among Algerians that it might be overshadowed by the May 1 demonstrations over highly contested pension reforms in France.
However, the Algerian leader has yet to make the visit, which is intended to solidify improved relations between the two countries following numerous diplomatic crises. Instead, he traveled to Russia in June, where he received a grand reception from Russian President Vladimir Putin. Algiers and Moscow have maintained privileged relations for a long time. Tebboune said: “Our visit to Russia yielded concrete results,” adding that state visits to China, Italy, and Portugal have also been successful.
This illustrates that the approach of giving lessons could have worked in the past when France faced little competition in Africa and North Africa. However, in the present day, it must contend with China and Russia. Make no mistake, significant strides have been made by both countries in recent years. While grappling with the Ukrainian conflict, Russia has been able to strengthen its relations and establish military agreements with many African countries. Meanwhile, China has presented pragmatic and constructive solutions for infrastructure development and trade partnerships. In essence, they are offering a better deal.
It is also no coincidence that a robust communication and activist campaign has emerged in both Africa and France, aimed at breaking away from France’s previous colonialist role. This places even more pressure on Macron. Declarations of a new chapter or reset cannot merely be superficial, but must possess genuine substance.
No one denies the horrendous impact of French colonialism, especially in Algeria, which earned the moniker “Country of the Million Martyrs” due to the loss of life and immense sacrifices made by Algerians during their struggle for independence from French rule. This term acknowledges the countless individuals who died or suffered as a consequence of the violence, repression and conflicts that characterized Algeria’s fight for freedom. In this context, Algerian political forces are determined to assert their new position south of the Mediterranean, and to truly reset and rebalance relations with France and the West at large.
However, there is a specific reason this anti-colonial sentiment is spreading: France and the West are weakening on the international stage, and this serves as a rallying point. This weakening is also prompting a different discourse domestically, as the recent protests show. The progressive left’s agendas are intensifying pressure by advocating a break from institutional aspects of the old world order.
Indeed, France, like the West, is grappling with uncertainty. This might be the most pressing issue, as the debate revolves around the country’s own identity. This agenda is championed by the progressive left, which leverages France’s colonial past to draw parallels with what it perceives as continuing oppression. All of this comes at a time when Europe and the West have less influence over the world’s fate and are even threatened by a new global order.
Tense relations between France and Italy on Libya reveal this state of doubt. The key issue is not positive bilateral relations with their African counterparts, but a fight to access energy. This highlights European weaknesses at a time of alternatives for trade and security partnerships. Indeed, China is offering a much better long-term partnership than Europe.
Can Macron reverse the tide? Can he reset relations with Algeria? This depends on what he can deliver, underscoring the need for a comprehensive reset of an overarching strategic foreign policy that should be inscribed with the EU.
Khaled Abou Zahr is the founder of Barbicane, a space-focused investment syndication platform. He is CEO of EurabiaMedia and editor of Al-Watan Al-Arabi. This article was originally published in Arab News.