France and the Mediterranean Countries

Algeria Table of Contents

Despite ambiguous sentiment in Algeria concerning its former colonial power, France has maintained a historically favored position in Algerian foreign relations. Algeria experienced a high level of dependency on France in the first years after the revolution and a conflicting desire to be free of that dependency. The preestablished trade links, the lack of experienced Algerian government officials, and the military presence provided for in the Evian Accords ending the War of Independence ensured the continuance of French influence. France supplied much-needed financial assistance, a steady supply of essential imports, and technical personnel.

This benevolent relationship was altered in the early Boumediene years when the Algerian government assumed control of French-owned petroleum extraction and pipeline interests and nationalized industrial and energy enterprises. French military units were almost immediately pulled out. France, although apparently willing to maintain cooperative relations, was overlooked as Algeria, eager to exploit its new independence, looked to other trade partners. Shortly afterward, Algerian interest in resuming French-Algerian relations resurfaced. Talks between Boumediene and the French government confirmed both countries' interest in restoring diplomatic relations. France wanted to preserve its privileged position in the strategically and economically important Algerian nation, and Algeria hoped to receive needed technical and financial assistance. French intervention in the Western Sahara against the Polisario and its lack of Algerian oil purchases, leading to a trade imbalance in the late 1970s strained relations and defeated efforts toward bilateral rapprochement. In 1983 Benjedid was the first Algerian leader to be invited to France on an official tour, but relations did not greatly improve.

Despite strained political relations, economic ties with France, particularly those related to oil and gas, have persisted throughout independent Algerian history. Nationalized Algerian gas companies, in attempting to equalize natural gas export prices with those of its neighbors, alienated French buyers in the late 1970s and early 1980s, however. Later gas agreements resulted in a vast growth of bilateral trade into the billions of dollars. Further disputes over natural gas pricing in the late 1980s led to a drastic drop in French-Algerian imports and exports. The former fell more than 10 billion French francs, the latter 12 billion French francs between 1985 and 1987. A new price accord in 1989 resurrected cooperative ties. The new agreement provided substantial French financial assistance to correct trade imbalances and guaranteed French purchasing commitments and Algerian oil and gas prices. French support for Benjedid's government throughout the difficult period in 1988 when the government appeared especially precarious and subsequent support for economic and political liberalization in Algeria expedited improved French-Algerian relations. Finally, rapprochement with Morocco, a number of joint economic ventures between France and Algeria, and the establishment of the UMA relaxed some of the remaining tensions.

One source of steady agitation has been the issue of Algerian emigration to France. French policies toward Algerian immigrants have been inconsistent, and French popular sentiment has generally been unfavorable toward its Arab population. The French government has vacillated between sweeping commitments to "codevelopment," involving extensive social networks for emigrant Algerian laborers, and support of strict regulations concerning work and study permits, random searches for legal papers, and expeditious deportation without appeal in the event of irregularities. North African communities in France remain relatively isolated, and chronic problems persist for Algerians trying to obtain housing, education, and employment. A number of racially motivated incidents occur each year between North African emigrants and French police and citizens.

Equally problematic has been Algeria's handling of the emigrant issue. The government has provided substantial educational, economic, and cultural assistance to the emigrant community but has been less consistent in defending emigrant workers' rights in France, frequently subordinating its own workers' interests to strategic diplomatic concerns in maintaining favorable relations with France. The rise of Islamism in Algeria and the subsequent crackdown on the Islamists by the government have had serious implications for both countries: record numbers of Algerian Islamists have fled to France, where their cultural dissimilarity as Arab Islamists is alien to the country.

In the early 1990s, nearly 20 percent of all Algerian exports and imports were destined for or originated from France. More than 1 million Algerians resided in France and there were numerous francophones in Algeria, creating a tremendous cultural overlap. French remained the language of instruction in most schools and the language used in more than two-thirds of all newspapers and periodicals and on numerous television programs. Algeria and France share a cultural background that transcends diplomatic maneuvers and has persisted throughout periods of "disenchantment" and strained relations. Over time, however, the arabization of Algeria and the increasing polarization of society between the francophone elite and the Arab masses have mobilized anti-French sentiment. Support for the arabization of Algerian society--including the elimination of French as the second national language and emphasis on an arabized education curriculum--and the recent success of the FIS indicate a growing fervor in Algeria for asserting an independent national identity. Such an identity emphasizes its Arab and Islamic cultural tradition rather than its French colonial past. However, France's support for the military regime that assumed power in early 1992 indicates that the cooperative relations between the two countries remain strong.

For obvious geographic reasons, Italy, Spain, Greece, and Turkey share a privileged position in Algerian foreign relations. The economic and strategic significance of Algeria as a geographically adjacent and continentally prominent nation are relevant to the foreign policies of the Mediterranean nations. Whereas Algeria's relations with France have been complicated by confusing emotional and cultural complexities, its relations with the other Mediterranean countries have been primarily driven by economic factors. Both Spain and Italy have become substantial importers of Algerian gas--1989 figures indicated that Italy was Algeria's largest customer for natural gas. A transnational pipeline with three undersea pipes runs from Algeria through Tunisia to Italy, and work has begun on another. Greece and Turkey have both signed import agreements with Algeria's national hydrocarbons company, known as Sonatrach. Spain and Italy have extended sizable credit lines for Algerian imports of Spanish and Italian goods. Since the latter 1980s, Algeria has devoted increased attention toward regional concerns, making the geographical proximity of the Mediterranean nations of growing importance to Algeria's diplomatic and economic relations.

For the immediate preindependence and postindependence periods, the best political analysis is found in William B. Quandt's Revolution and Political Leadership: Algeria, 1954-1968 and David B. Ottaway and Marina Ottaway's, Algeria: The Politics of a Socialist Revolution. The Boumediene and Benjedid periods are covered from contrasting conceptual perspectives in John P. Entelis's Algeria: The Revolution Institutionalized, Mahfoud Bennoune's The Making of Contemporary Algeria, 1830-1987, and Rachid Tlemcani's State and Revolution in Algeria. The most recent analysis incorporating political, economic, and social events through the military coup d'état of January 1992 is the work edited by John P. Entelis and Philip C. Naylor, State and Society in Algeria.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress