It all blew up at the worst moment. In early August, when everybody was supposed to be on summer vacations, several Islamist militants who were trying to penetrate inside a residential compound of the French embassy in Algiers with a car loaded with explosives shot and killed three French gendarmes and two employees of the consulate.
The unrest is not something that is quite new but has become a routine occurrence due to the friction between the immigrants and the other people who are residents in the country. The friction has to be something that needs to be resolved otherwise there is no way it can be understood according to the sites.
Several French citizens had already been murdered since the beginning of the armed clashes between the Algerian authorities and the islamists in February 1992. But this raid was by far the most daring. Rabah Kebir, one of the leaders of the Algerian FIS, the Islamic Salvation Front, presently living in Bonn, Germany, refused to condemn the violence. Asked by a reporter of the French State Television if he condemned this last attack, he answered: “We have tried all peaceful solutions, but this was not possible. The authorities annuled the results of the elections that we had won, and, unfortunately, France backed them. I would therefore say that some acts are justified in order to achieve our revolution”.
The next day, in a move aiming at “terrorizing the terrorists”, Charles Pasqua, France’s interior minister, unleashed his police forces which searched the houses of suspected islamists militants in Paris and in the provinces (several of them had already been interrogated during a similar operations the previous November). They also looked into the identity of some 25.000 North Africans in the following two weeks, bringing back bad memories of the police raids launched during the Algerian war of liberation (1954-1962) when any individual with a face looking like an Arab was a suspect.
The result was meagre. The agents of the minister of interior seized five Islamic bulletins, which were outlawed, and 16 suspected islamist militants, including a merchant known for his heavy drinking habit, were placed under house arrest at Folembray, a village in northern France, pending their expulsion to Burkina-Faso.
The population of Folembray went hysterical, complaining in front of TV cameras about the presence of “dangerous terrorists” in their village. What is worse, and more serious, for several days Charles Pasqua aired his views on the various channels of the French television as if he was simultaneously the minister of interior, the minister of foreign affairs, and even the President.
Dismissing the idea that there is anything like moderate fundamentalism in Algeria as “wishful thinking”, Charles Pasqua claimed that there are in Algeria only “armed groups, terrorist groups which are fighting the regime supported by the Algerian army at the moment. The choice is therefore between the long term ability of the current regime to control the situation — we shall see whether or not it will succeed in this — and the coming to power of the fundamentalists”.
Even worse, Charles Pasqua went as far as accusing some countries with which France has the best relations — namely the USA, England and Germany — of being too soft about sheltering members of Islamist groups. “If the fact that a friend and an ally of France has on its territory people who not only do not disown the outrages but indeed support them, is not — how shall I put it — an unfriendly act. If it is thought that those people have the right to engage in such activities, then I fear that those countries may be in for a rude awakenening. France has made diplomatic representations to these friendly countries”.
And Charles Pasqua added: “I myself pointed out to my counterparts at a meeting in Brussels that it would be a good thing if this sort of police action were to be carried out in other countries. The problem is that the arrival in power of a theocratic government, with everything that entails, would be certain to lead hundreds of thousands of people fleeing Algeria”.
That was it. The minister of interior was terrorising French public opinion with the spectre of invading hordes of Arab refugees, boat people and others, escaping the terror of a “theocratic” Algeria.
Alain Juppé, the French foreign minister, did try to formulate a more balanced policy: “Let’s be clear about this, it is up to Algeria to make Algerian policy “, he said on the return of his lightning visit to Algiers with François Leotard, the defense minister, at the beginning of August. “It is through elections, when the time is right, that they should express their opinions”.
Dismissing a week later suggestion that the minister of interior was infringing upon his domain, Alain Juppé explained that “a governmen’s first responsability is to ensure the security of its citizens on its territory, and that is the duty of the interior minister, Charles Pasqua. He is doing this with his customary energy and efficiency. It is not the first time he has done so, and I unreservedly approve of the measures he has taken concerning French national territory”.
But Juppé also seized the opportunity to underline that while the French government is taking up the baton against the terrorist threat, it is “not doing so, I stress, against Islam, for the two are quite different”. And then, added Alain Juppé, “there is French foreign policy, and this is my responsability, under the authority of the prime minister”.
It is interesting to note that in his remarks Alain Juppé forgot to mention President Mitterrand who according to the constitution is charged with directing the French foreign policy. “First of all, Juppé added, “Algeria has to pull itself out of this situation. We tried to give them financial support”.
France convinced its European partners at the last European summit at Corfu, and its industrialised partners in the Group of Seven, including the Americans, in Naples recently to do so. France on its own granted Algeria FF6 bn ($1,3bn) in 1994. “Now we have a right to say: what have you done with this aid? Is it proving efficient? What conclusions can be drawn?”
The second issue, Juppé repeated, is “that there cannot be a solution to the Algerian tragedy which works purely on the security front. What did I say when I went to Algiers? I told president Zeroual that there had to be elections. The Agerian people, when conditions allow it, have to express themselves. This is not very different from what I occasionnally hear from the lips of some learned American commentators. We cannot simplify the French position. This is the official foreign policy of France”.
Alas, the last point of Alain Juppé’s policy — the free choice of the Algerian people — was pushed back into the background by Charles Pasqua’s much louder voice and political stature. He is presented by the media as a potential candidate at next year presidential elections as an outsider who could squeeze out both the present prime minister, Edouard Balladur and Jacques Chirac, the leader of the Gaullist RPR.
Trying to explain the French policy in a more elaborate way, a French diplomat, who spoke on condition of strict anonymity said that one should be very careful when dissecting it. He claimed that there are two levels of analysis in the French government. “Obviously, one of them is more epidermic. Some of our leaders are blinkered. Others have chosen their camp. It can alter the presentation of our policy”.
Alluding to the various “sensibilities” inside the French government, the diplomat admitted that people in the Interior Ministry had “several times drawn the impression that he was making foreign policy”. “Pasqua is not an ordinary minister”, he said. “He is almost 20 years older than Juppé. He is the memory of the government. He just takes his telephone and talks to Shaikh Sabah al Ahmad (Kuwait’s foreign minister) and to Shaikh Nayef bin Abdul Aziz (the Saudi interior minister). He is their friend. Sometimes he behaves like a young scamp — as when he went hunting with Dris Basri (the Moroccan interior minister) and shaikh Nayef at el Ayoun (in the territory claimed by the Algerian-supported Sahraoui Republic). This deeply irritates Juppé”.
“Our policy, the French policy”, added this diplomat, “is to do anything in our power so that Algeria does not collapse. We don’t support the government of president Liamine Zeroual, whom we don’t find especially sympathetic. We help this country so that it does not break down economically and socially. We don’t want Tunisia and Morocco to be contaminated. Our objective is to prevent millions of Algerians to rush to the neighbouring countries and to France. It is quite difficult to play our cards in this Algerian file “. Answering a question on eventual contacts between the French government and FIS officials, the diplomat denied there were any. “Juppé’s line is not to have contacts with opposition movements of countries with which we have diplomatic relations. This makes all the difference between Iran and Iraq. We don’t meet the representatives of Massoud Radjavi’s Mujahedine, but we see the Iraqi opposition”. The presence of Shaikh Sahraoui, a founding member of the FIS, in Paris is dismissed by sympathizers of the Islamic movement. “He is such an old man, who says whatever Pasqua wants to hear, whenever he is shown a microphone”, they say.
Then the Algerian authorities abruptly changed course and caught everybody by surprise when President Liamine Zeroual decided in September to release several of the FIS leaders who had been sentenced to 12 years in jail. They were put under house arrest, with the hope that they would participate in the “national dialogue” already started with five parties of the democratic opposition.
All of a sudden, while Charles Pasqua’s D.S.T (the internal security agency) was busy tracking down FIS supporters, Abbassi Madani and Ali Belhadj, the two liberated leaders of the FIS, were considered to be “moderate islamists” to whom the Algerian authorities could talk. This dramatic overture put France in an akward situation.
It managed to convince some observers that France has no Algerian policy at all. Strangely enough, there are few dissenting voices. Among the French politicians, only Jean-François Deniau, a right of centre politician who is deputy chairman of the foreign affairs commission at the French national assembly, expressed his reservations, saying: “France ought to keep its distances both from a dictatorial and corrupt Algerian government which showed its inefficiency, and from the FIS”.
In a French press which universally supports the views of the “eradicationists” (partisans of an all-out war against the Islamists) Jean-François Revel is one of the rare commentatord to underline “France’s errors”. “France’s most irreparable mistake was immediately to grant new credits to the Algerian regime, in October 1988 after its troops shot with heavy machine-guns on adolescents in the streets of Algiers”, wrote Revel in the French weekly “Le Point” on August 13, concluding: “The FIS is the monstruous illegitimate child of the Algerian dictatorship and the French Republic. No other country was more of an accomplice than France with the Algerian culprits of this catastrophe”.
Alain Chenal, an expert on Arab affairs, claims that the real turning point was the cancellation of the second round of the elections in january 1992 denying the FIS the victory it was supposed to reap after almost reaching a clear majority. FIS achieved a 47,6 % share of the votes at the first round of polling in December 1991. Alain Chenal, who is the Socialist party’s international secretary’s adviser on Middle East and Arab affairs, says: “This was a mistake; the worst of all solutions. And save for President Mitterrand, nobody in France said anything, nobody objected”. Chenal sadly admits that he does not hear anybody in French political circles formulating real criticism of the present Algerian regime. “People mention its economic mistakes. But they don’t fundamentally question the legitimacy of this government, its corruption, its policy of repression”.
For Alain Chenal, French policy in Algeria is clearly dictated by considerations of internal policy. “What characterizes our policy is panic. The government is panic-stricken by the impact that in Ageria could have in particular the arrival to power of an islamic regime”. Pasqua knows that the election of the candidate of the right-wing as president in may 1995 will hinge on a small number of voices that could switch to the extreme-rightist Le Pen if anything happens in Algeria that reinforces the latent racism in France. “Pasqua is obsessed by the image of Algerian boat-people reaching the French shores before next spring”, concludes Alain Chenal, “and he wants it to happen the latest possible date — in any case, after the elections. The Algerian file will be the first problem the future President will have to deal with, and so far no candidate has formulated a policy”.
Analyzing the general attitude of the French government and public opinion from a different angle, an Algerian islamist living in Paris says: “France unequivocally supports this Algerian regime. It always helped the regimes, never the people. Why? To counter American designs in Africa — and, before anything else, because it is motivated by a deeply rooted hate of Islam. Our generals come to Paris and say, “We are your last rampart. If we go, your culture, your language, your influence are finished. And you will have two million refugees!” And your politicians believe it. Why? Because in France Islam is viewed as something that is backward. Islam means cutting hands, living in polygamy, rejecting elections. There is a hatred of other religions that has very ancient roots, and it is daily exacerbated by your media, by the French press and television. The Americans are much less impassioned. They know that Ageria is not trying to export its Islamic movement and that this movement is not anti-American. They also know that Algeria is a muslim country and will remain muslim”.
He has a point. French media, like the Nouvel Observateur, which bravely supported the Algerian war of independence against the majority of the French public opinion, use too frequently today words like “barbary” and “obscurantism”. And there is a disquieting irruption of religion in a French society supposed to be secular and non confessional. In less than six months, two French mass circulation weeklies devoted their cover stories to “The mysteries of Virgin Mary” (Le Point, 21 May), “The Real Life of Mohammed” (Le Point, again, 1 October), and “The Real Life of Jesus” (Evènement du Jeudi, 6 October) while the third one made it on “Islam and the Women” (Nouvel Observateur, 22 September). Religion is selling in France like Princess Diana’s love story in Britain. The agitation around the determination of a very small number of “Beurettes” (second generation Algerian girls with French nationality) to go to their lycée with a scarf or a hijab covering their head is not going to make the debate about the status of Islam in France — and France’s relations with Algeria — clearer.
Algerian intellectuals living or writing in France don’t come up with enlightening comments on the French policy in Algeria. While some of them, like Rachid Mimouni and Rachid Boudjedra, rank among the most rabid “eradicationists”, the others are rather mild in their criticism. “France did not adopt a clear policy”, claims Mourad Oussedik, an Algerian born lawyer who used to plead for FLN defendants in 1954-1962 and who is presently assisting in the defence of the renowned terrorist Carlos. “Both sides in Algeria are courting the French, who refused to commit themselves. All they say is: “We want to avoid an implosion, we don’t want chaos. Find a solution quickly. It ought to be a democratic one. Talk to each other”!
Analyzing the respective policies of the French Left and of the conservative coalition which took over after the legislative elections in march 1993, Mourad Oussedik says that “the socialists and President Mitterrand followed a wavering policy, while indirectly supporting the islamists. On the other hand, the new centre-rightmajority has been directly supporting the Algerian authorities, while telling them to find a democratic solution which would not bring to power the islamists”. Commenting on the fatal interruption of the elections in January 1992, Oussedik explains — and forgives? — the silence of the French democrats by the fact that there was “such a ground swell of Algerian political parties which told the army to stop the elections”.
An Algerian journalist, who fought in the Algerian war of liberation, and who later showed some sympathy for the Islamic revolution in Iran, claims that he has “not much to say about the electoral process”. This journalist stopped writing about Algeria because he was “threatened by both sides”. He is so desperate about the “slaughter” in his country that, he says, “myself, a man, I am ready to put on a Tchador if this is the price for peace”!
Trying to consider French policy “without passion and without judging it”, he remarks that “France listened to the voice of the Algerian democrats, of the French speaking community, who fit best in France’s modernist idea of Algeria. Was it its interest? The French government ought to think twice. Was it its best choice to support people who have no social goals, who do not do anything against the prevailing corruption, who are only obsessed with preserving their privileges?”
Surprisingly, foreign observers are also rather mild in their criticism, if any, of French policy in Algeria. Italian, Spanish and British diplomats, although reacting with their own sensitivity to the Algerian crisis, agree that they would not like to be in the position of the French. “It’s a no win situation”, says a British diplomat. But he singles out for comment Charles Pasqua’s statements and posture. “It is disastrous. It gives the impression that the only alternative is between a security solution and the rise to power of the Islamists”.
Although this is relatively a new phenomenon — until recently both countries were exporting their population — both Italy and Spain are beginning to experience the presence of an Arab community of immigrant workers from the Maghreb. Historically and geographically, Italy has closer links with Libya and Tunisia, where there is so far no Islamic problem. “We were looking at the situation in France with too much serenity”, an Italian diplomat says, “when the construction of a big mosque in Rome in the 1980s gave rise to some emotion. We were not used to see Muslims in our country”. Thereafter Italy was also confronted with the Algerian crisis. Several of its citizens were murdered, including seven Italian sailors last July. The situation in Algeria was debated in the parliament, but quite calmly. It never became a stake of internal policy. Unlike France, Italy’s relations with Algeria are new, dating back to independence. “And we don’t have yet veils in our schools”, says the diplomat.
Like France, Italy has reduced its presence in Algeria to the strict minimum, while supporting the Algerian regime economically. Even bebore the Club of Paris decided to reschedule Algerian debt, Italy was ready to do it for the $5bn that Algeria owes. “We are convinced the solution of the problem goes through an economic recovery”, says an Italian diplomat. “And the deterioration of the social situation pushes many people to join the ranks of terrorist organisations. But we also think that the present regime has problems of legitimacy. So we encourage it to pursue a dialogue with the elements of the Algerian society that were kept on the fence. Eradication will not solve the problem. This is what our foreign minister told parliament”.
The Spanish view of the Algerian crisis is somewhat similar to the Italian, save for a few points. Like Italy, Spain has been for centuries a country of emigrants. There is a large Spanish immigrant community in France and the presence of Arab immigrants in Spain is quite a new phenomenon. Like Italy, Spain does not have close relations with Algeria. Its immediate neighbour is Morocco, with which it has historical ties. “Dozens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of Moroccans speak Spanish”, claims a Spanish diplomat who asserts that even members of the Royal family speak Spanish.
Between 70.000 and 100.000 Moroccans now live in Spain, and there are some signs of rejection. “It is little compared to France, but a lot compared to what we had ten years ago”, he says. “You are used to it in France and you have less unemployment”. But like Italian politicians, their Spanish counterparts don’t fear a tidal wave of Algerian refugees which might follow the emergence of an Islamic regime in Algiers.
There is a predominant consensus about the solution of the Algerian crisis in Spain, which calls for implementation of democracy through a formula that would be more widely accepted than the present regime. “But without violence”, a Spanish diplomat said. Confronted with the endless Basque security problem, the Spanish are much more sensitive to the problem of violence than the Italians. And they do not criticize Charles Pasqua too harshly. While quite aware of the motivations of his internal policy, this Spanish diplomat said: “Pasqua’s raids against the Islamists in France have a clear meaning — “We are keeping an eye on you”. He is probably right to show his vigilance and to follow closely their activities. If you do not do so, you will run into problems”.
The Spanish are also somewhat sceptic about the American attitude. Like some French observers, they question the fact that so far there have been no attacks in Algeria against American interests — people, or oil installations. They also question the wisdom of the American advice to talk to the FIS. “Is American advice disinterested”, asked a Spanish diplomat. “Are they motivated only by their love for human rights, or do they want to seize the opportunity to supplant France in Algeria”? Surprisingly enough, while this theory of American conspiracy against French interests is widely accepted by many Algerian and French analysts, it does not seem to worry much the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “Anouar Haddam is seen by the State Department in Washington”, says a French diplomat. “So what. We don’t think it is very useful, but these relations with the FIS don’t go as far as it is said”.
None of this make up much of a French policy for Algeria.
When asked what should be the French policy in Algeria, Alain Chenal, who is probably one of the best French analysts on the subject, comes up with a few suggestions:
– to take into greater consideration the “third force”, or what is left of the civilian society.
– to be able to talk to the Islamists in the future by starting talks with them today;
– to denounce the excesses of the armed forces. How can we ask the Islamists to respect human rights if we say nothing today about widescale summary executions and the use of torture;
– to proceed via a minimum at least of European cooperation. The stabilisation of the Maghreb is important for all the Europeans. While the Italians and the Spanish agree on this, the Germans are much more concerned with the problems in Eastern Europe (In what may be indication of this, the German embassy in Paris declined to discuss the issue with this correspondent);
– to preserve a minimum of unity in the Magreb. It would be a big mistake to believe that one can “save” Morocco against Algeria.
Alain Chenal admits that these are somewhat short-term guidelines. “It does not make a policy. I have not heard anybody formulating a policy. Nobody has a ready-made Algerian policy”.
If this is true, it could lead to a tragedy. Since President Zeroual liberated Abbassi Madani and Ali Belhadj, Algeria has undergone a new wave of violence. All the signs indicate that both sides are deeply divided. Inside the Army, there are still strong “eradicationist” forces which reject any eventual talks with the FIS — the generals, who want to be sure that they will get the necessary guarantees to save their skins, their money, and their privileges; and the rank and file soldiers and gendarmes who participated to the ugly repression, and fear the revenge of their former victims, if and when there is a deal. They already see themselves as sharing the fate of the “harkis” of the previous war.
Inside the Islamist camp, the division runs far deeper, between the leaders of the FIS, Madani and BelHadj, who probably do not control much physical force any more; and the various groups and movements, who could be tempted to negotiate, or who totally reject the idea of negotiation.
“The main question today”, an Algerian islamist with close contacts with various groups said in Paris, is: “What have we achieved”? Many militants fear that the cause for which they fought and sacrificed so much, the creation of an Islamic republic, is not going to be implemented. Their disillusion is total. For them, it is a disaster. So they will ask those who stop fighting — Why do you stop? What did you get in exchange? So many people will fear to be considered as a traitor”.
The second Algerian war has already cost (officially) 10.000 Agerian victims (and 62 foreigners, including 18 French) since February 1992. French observers believe the real figure is somewhere between 20.000 and 30.000. This is nothing compared to what could happen if Algeria is engulfed in an Afghan-type conflict, in which nobody knows which side is fighting whom and why, and when no power can stop the massacre.
The other possible scenario — if both sides, the armed forces and the FIS — are able to impose a “deal” on their more or less disciplined followers, is not much less gloomy. “An agreement, Sudan-type, a sharing of power according to which the Armed Forces would keep the key ministries — defense, interior, external trade — and the FIS would have education, social affairs, and religious affairs, would not do any good”, says an expert who, like so many observers of the Algerian crisis, prefers to remain anonymous.
“It is not enough to reestablish a kind of peace. This country has to be managed, its wealth shared, so many social issues have to be solved. It would be another catastrophe”.
(The Middle East magazine, November 1994)