As the European parliament elections approach, the continent’s navel-gazing is ever more myopic. Even its two most outward focused states, France and Britain, are consumed by domestic crises. And yet in Europe’s backyard – across the Mediterranean, in Algeria – radical change is taking place with potentially serious ramifications for the European Union and France.
Every Friday since February the authoritarian Algerian regime has been the target of tens of thousands of peaceful demonstrators on a scale unknown since the country’s troubled independence from France in 1962. The spark was 82-year-old Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s announcement that he would seek a fifth term as president, despite being chronically debilitated by a stroke since 2013. Popular anger, shouldered by army pressure, forced Bouteflika’s resignation on 2nd April.
But the demonstrations have not relented, with calls for the removal of the entire corrupt Bouteflika clan from political and economic power. The purge so far however is too slow and too limited for the people. Elections planned by the authorities for 4th July have been rejected. As the holy month of Ramadan begins who knows how long popular discontent will retain its composure or the army its restraint.
Why should change on the southern Mediterranean rim provoke apprehension when the 2010-2011 Arab spring was contained?
First, strategically, Algeria is the tenth largest country in the world by area, tenth in the world for natural gas reserves, sixteenth for oil and third for shale gas.
Second, with its 42 million population – 45 per cent below the age of 15 – and chronic unemployment, Algeria is a powder keg just off Europe’s shores. Based on an archaic rentier state development model for six decades, 90 per cent of export revenue is from hydrocarbons, making economic and social stability perilously dependent on world oil prices.
Third, Algeria is a secular Muslim state, but where an Islamic fundamentalist party on the brink of power in 1991 was denied access to elections, resulting in a decade-long civil war claiming an estimated 200,000 lives. If Algeria slips into chaos, the Libyan example (with a mere six million population), will require significant upscaling.
The consequence for an already fragile European Union would be frightening: uncontrollable numbers of trans-Mediterranean migrants, increased political rifts between member states and a further boost to extremist parties. Worse still, if Algeria succumbed to Islamic fundamentalism, the frequently-predicted 1990s domino scenario for the southern Mediterranean rim, with a green arc stretching into the Middle East, is conceivable and Europe most vulnerable.
What is most striking about the radical and, as yet, peaceful change taking place in Algeria is the near silence of the French state, the former colonial power for whom the three Algerian departments were a part of France like Northern Ireland for the UK. This is, on the face of things, more surprising given president Emmanuel Macron’s hyperactive interventionism and habitual lesson-giving on the international scene, in evidence recently along the coast in the failed state of Libya and met by anti-French demonstrations.
Why the silence? Because Franco-Algerian relations have been deeply scarred by the eight-year bloody independence struggle, ‘the war with no name’, which lasted as long as America’s Vietnam War and engaged as many French troops as Vietnam did Americans.
As with Vietnam, French troops were conscripts and at least 25,000 of them were killed, while some 150,000 Algerian FLN fighters perished, not to mention civilian deaths. Many French families still remember this ‘dirty war’ through the military service of their loved ones as a mixture of sorrow, humiliation and bitterness, particularly as 25 per cent more French families were hit by the death of a serviceman in Algeria than American families with Vietnam.
But unlike the Americans for Vietnam, the French have still not seriously confronted their traumas. On the Algerian side, the struggle against France became a founding myth of the post-1962 regime. Continuing hostility to France has been an instrument of national identity. The Franco-Algerian relationship is charged with historical ambiguity and insidious hostility. No one knows how Algerian instability will impact France’s two-four million Algerian diaspora, its largest Muslim community. Add to that one million pieds noirs – the ‘white’ settler community forced to flee Algeria for France at independence, and the picture is darker still. Hence the silence.
Macron’s attention may have been focussed on his own fractured society and 25 weeks of ‘yellow vest’ protests. But one can wager that the Quai d’Orsay, the Defence Ministry and France’s intelligence services are seriously gaming scenarios. The worst case puts Europe and France on the front line. Since first becoming a colony in 1830, Algeria has been associated with major French political crises, including the 1830 fall of the Bourbons, opposition to the Second Empire, rebellion in 1871, the rise of anti-Semitism during the Dreyfus Affair, the clash between the Free French and the Vichy Regime, the fall of the Fourth Republic, the birth of the Fifth, the April 1961 military putsch and the October 1961 murderous repression of demonstrations in Paris. It may continue to be so.
Professor John Keiger is a former research director in the Department of Politics and International Studies at the University of Cambridge. A version of this article was first published in Politeia