Macron's Algeria Dilemma
France's President Emmanuel Macron is facing a dilemma with Algeria. To act or not to act is the fence he uncomfortably sits on. Here's the story.
Eighty-two-year-old Abdelaziz Boutefilka, the president of Algeria, had a serious stroke six years ago and because of it seldom appears in public. He has now announced that he will not run for his fifth five-year presidential term. On the surface, this is a major victory for the Algerian street, which sees the regime as corrupt and has been demonstrating both in Algeria and France for him not to run.
At the same time, Boutefilka said the election scheduled for April 18 will be postponed. Instead, he's calling for a constitutional conference to form a new republic. No date has been set for the delayed election. Critics fear that this is a subterfuge by the ruling party to allow it to install a handpicked successor for Boutefilka and thus sidestep democracy.
Algeria is already a volatile mix without this political uncertainty. Half of the country's 42 million population is under 30 years old, and most have no jobs or even prospects of one. The only option for a better life is emigration, and that would be to France. As a legacy of the French colonization of Algeria and the Algerian War of Independence (1954–1962), France has a special relationship with Algeria. Because of that, France has approximately 3 million Algerians with either French or French-Algerian dual citizenship.
There are several problems with free elections, though. The Algerian army fought a bitter war against Islamists in the 1990s, leaving some 200,000 dead. Since then, the military mostly has been used to suppress political expression. The generals may not respond well to a strong showing by an Islamic party.
And then there's the ruling class. Will it go along with the structure of this "new republic"? And as always, can the Arab street be depended on to vote intelligently and establish a legitimate republic? Maybe when pigs fly.
Algeria is ripe for destabilization. Writing in the New York Post, Benny Avni asks if Algeria might not become the next killing field in Arabia. If it does, the Algerian people will bear the brunt of the chaos. Think civil war. But unlike Las Vegas, what happens in Algeria does not stay in Algeria. Should things go south for this populous (current estimate: over 42 million) North African country, France, because of its close proximity and its relationship with Algeria, will be a casualty, too.
Oil and gas are Algeria's main exports, with 90% going to Western Europe. Turmoil in Algeria would disrupt this trade and aggravate Europe's energy supply. Worst of all is that Arab immigration would spike. Many of those coming would surely include Islamic fanatics, some of them drawn into Algeria from other Islamic countries in order to gain entry into France.
This is the very last thing France needs. As Charles de Gaulle reportedly said in 1959: "you could mix Arabs and French together, but like oil and vinegar in a bottle, after a while they would inevitably separate." This is why sections of France have turned into separate Muslim entities. A great influx of more Arab immigrants would be like feeding the tumor that is already apt to kill France.
The official party line from France is that it supports Algerian self-determination and free elections. Don't believe it. Emmanuel Macron, for all his faults, is not as hopelessly naïve as Germany's Angel Merkel, who actually put out the welcome mat for immigrants from North Africa and the Middle East. The French know that if the Pandora's box is opened in Algeria, it will unleash an unimaginable wave of immigration. Pragmatically speaking, it's far better dirtying one's hands to manipulate a strongman into the presidency than that.
That's Macron's dilemma — to stand aside like a good liberal democrat and let things take their course or to interfere. Macron can be expected to want to have his cake and eat it, too. He'd attempt that by posturing a hands-off policy while working behind the scenes for stability at whatever cost. Can he pull it off?
Whether he can or can't, does it even matter in the long run? No matter what, Algeria cannot be expected to grow a robust economy and society capable of providing jobs and a decent standard of living for its everyday citizens. As such, the welfare state of France and its relatively soft life will continue to attract the growing Algerian underclass as a flame does moths. As for France and the rest of Western Europe, although they have the actual ability to stop unwanted immigration cold, they show no signs of mustering the will to do so. This cannot end well.