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France’s Macron concludes Algeria visit with new pact

French President Emmanuel Macron and his Algerian counterpart Abdelmadjid Tebboune Saturday declared a "new, irreversible dynamic of progress" in their nations' ties, concluding a visit by Macron aimed at ending months of tensions.

French President Emmanuel Macron (L) and Algeria's President Abdelmadjid Tebboune shake hands in Algeria
French President Emmanuel Macron (L) and Algeria's President Abdelmadjid Tebboune (C) attend a signing ceremony in the pavilion of honour at Algiers airport, in Algiers, on August 27, 2022. Macron is on a three-day visit to Algeria aimed at mending ties with the former French colony. Ludovic MARIN / AFP

The three-day visit has aimed to turn the page on months of tensions with the North African country, which earlier this year marked six decades of independence following 132 years of French rule.

It also came as European powers scramble to replace Russian energy imports — including with supplies from Algeria, Africa’s top gas exporter, which in turn is seeking a greater regional role.

In their joint declaration on Saturday, the two leaders said “France and Algeria have decided to open a new era … laying the foundation for a renewed partnership expressed through a concrete and constructive approach, focused on future projects and youth.”

At the signing ceremony, Tebboune addressed his guest in French, gushing over an “excellent, successful visit… which allowed for a rapprochement which wouldn’t have been possible without the personality of President Macron
himself.”

France's President Emmanuel Macron (R) shakes hands with Boualem Benhaoua (L), owner of the disco Maghreb Shopin

France’s President Emmanuel Macron (R) shakes hands with Boualem Benhaoua (L), owner of the Disco Maghreb music store during his visit in Oran on August 27, 2022. (Photo by Ludovic MARIN / AFP)

Ties between Paris and Algiers have seen repeated crises over the years.

They had been particularly cool since last year when Macron questioned Algeria’s existence as a nation before the French occupation and accused the government of fomenting “hatred towards France”.

Tebboune withdrew his country’s ambassador in response and banned French military aircraft from its airspace.

Normal diplomatic relations have since resumed, along with overflights to French army bases in sub-Saharan Africa.

‘Lack of courage’

After vowing to “build a new pact”, Macron was in the spiritual home of Rai music on Saturday, visiting a record shop made famous by French-Algerian singer DJ Snake’s recent hit of the same name, “Disco Maghreb”.

He also met athletes and artists and went for a somewhat chaotic walk in the streets where police struggled with onlookers trying to shake his hand or take photos.

On Friday evening, he had dinner with Algerian writer Kamel Daoud and other Oran personalities.

He had also met young entrepreneurs who quizzed him on the difficulties of getting visas to France, the decline of the French language in its former colony and the contentious issues around the two countries’ painful past.

Macron announced that an additional 8,000 Algerian students would be admitted to study in France this year, joining 30,000 already in the country.

He also announced the creation of a joint commission of historians to examine the colonial period and the devastating eight-year war that ended it.

But in France, both left and right-wing politicians were angered by the suggestion.

Socialist party leader Olivier Faure noted that Macron in 2017 had called French colonialism a “crime against humanity”, then later questioned the existence of Algeria as a nation prior to the colonial period.

“The lightness with which he deals with the subject is an insult to wounded memories,” Faure tweeted.

Far right leader Thomas Menage tweeted that Algeria should stop “using its past to avoid establishing true, friendly diplomatic relations”.

Macron’s visit was not universally welcomed by Algerians either.

“History can’t be written with lies… like the one that Algeria was created by France,” read an editorial in the French-language Le Soir newspaper.

“We expected Macron to erase this gross untruth during this visit,” it said, criticising him for a “lack of courage… to recognise his own faults and those of his country”.

France's President Emmanuel Macron (C) and  Algiers' archbishop Mgr Jean-Paul Vesco

France’s President Emmanuel Macron (C) and Algiers’ archbishop Mgr Jean-Paul Vesco (R) listen to explanations during a visit inside the chapel of the Santa Cruz fortress in Oran on August 27, 2022. (Photo by Ludovic MARIN / AFP)

Security meeting 

Earlier on Friday, Macron laid a wreath at a monument to those who “died for France”, in the mixed Christian-Jewish Saint Eugene cemetery which was a major burial ground for Europeans during colonial times.

Later in the day he met young Algerian entrepreneurs and visited the iconic Grand Mosque of Algiers before heading to second city Oran.

Also on  Friday, Macron and Tebboune presided over a “coordination meeting” involving security officials from both countries, “the first at this level since independence”, the Algerian presidency said.

French President Emmanuel Macron (C), and his official delegation, (from L) French Sports Minister Amelie Oudea-Castera, French Culture Minister Rima Abdul-Malak, French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin, French Foreign and European Affairs Minister Catherine Colonna, French Secretary of State for Veterans and Memory Patricia Miralles and French Armies Minister Sebastien Lecornu attend a meeting with members of the French community at the French ambassador to Algeria's residence, in Algiers

French President Emmanuel Macron (C), and his official delegation attend a meeting with members of the French community at the French ambassador to Algeria’s residence, in Algiers, on August 26, 2022, (Photo by Ludovic MARIN / AFP)

The French army’s chief of staff General Thierry Burkhard, his Algerian counterpart Said Chanegriha and France’s Defence Minister Sebastien Lecornu were among those in attendance, Algiers said.

Gas ‘good’ for Europe

Algeria is seeking a bigger role in the region, buoyed by surging energy prices that have filled the coffers of Africa’s top natural gas exporter following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Macron’s office said gas was not a major feature of the visit — although the head of French energy firm Engie, Catherine MacGregor, was in Macron’s 90-strong delegation.

The president said on Friday that Algeria had helped Europe diversify its energy supplies by pumping more gas to Italy, which last month signed a deal to import billions more cubic metres via an undersea pipeline from the North
African coast.

French President Emmanuel Macron (3rd R), Algerian Foreign Affairs Minister Ramtane Lamamra (2nd L) and imam of the Great Mosque of Algiers Mohamed Mamoun El-Kacimi El-Hassani (R) visit the Great Mosque of Algiers

French President Emmanuel Macron (3rd R), Algerian Foreign Affairs Minister Ramtane Lamamra (2nd L) and Imam of the Great Mosque of Algiers Mohamed Mamoun El-Kacimi El-Hassani (R) visit the Great Mosque of Algiers, on August 26, 2022. Ludovic MARIN / AFP

The deal is “good for Italy, it’s good for Europe and it improves the diversification of Europe,” he told reporters.

He also dismissed suggestions that Italy and France were “in competition”, noting that France only relies on natural gas for a small part of its energy mix.

The two leaders discussed how to bring stability to Libya, the Sahel region and the disputed territory of Western Sahara, according to Tebboune.

They also spoke at length about the spiky issue of French visas for Algerians, and Macron said Friday they had “very freely” discussed the human rights situation in Algeria.

“These issues will be settled in full respect of Algerian sovereignty,” Macron said.

He urged young Algerians “not to be taken in” by the “immense manipulation” of social media networks by foreign powers including Russia and China, which are both allies of Algiers.

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JOHN LICHFIELD

OPINION: An inflation ‘tsunami’ is about to hit France

The rise in the cost of living in France is among the lowest in Europe - but that does not mean that it's not already causing pain to consumers, and much worse is set to come in January, warns John Lichfield.

OPINION: An inflation 'tsunami' is about to hit France

There are lies, damned lies and official inflation figures. According to the official index, the cost of living in France has risen by 6.2 percent in the last year. If you limit that to food prices alone, the figure rises to 10 percent.

No more? It depends how you count and what you count.

A typical “supermarket basket” of 38 of the most used household items – fish-fingers, shampoo, crisps – cost 16.5 percent more at the end of September than 12 months earlier (according to a survey by Le Monde) .

Cooking oil, according to a government survey, is 60 percent higher than it was a year ago; frozen fruit is up by 40.6 percent, margarine 23.5 percent and flour by 23.5 percent. Terrible news if your favourite “French” dessert is “un crumble”.

The official inflation figure of 6.2 percent (the highest since 1985) may be misleading but it is not wrong. It is held down by rents, domestic energy prices and clothes, which have not risen as much as food.

The French government has spent €150 billion – 5 percent of GDP – in the last year to keep down the cost of electricity, gas, petrol and diesel. This mostly explains why inflation in France is so much lower than other countries. Prices are rising at 11.1 percent in the UK, 10.9 percent in Germany, 12 percent in Belgium and at an 8.5 percent average across the European Union.

READ ALSO How France is keeping its inflation (relatively) low

However, France faces a double shock or delayed reckoning in the New Year – what one senior government official describes as a “waterfall” and what Michel-Edouard Leclerc, head of the E. Leclerc supermarket chain, calls a “tsunami”.

The state subsidies on petrol, gas and electricity cannot be afforded indefinitely and are being wound down. Petrol and diesel rebates have already been reduced and will vanish from January 1st. Instead there will be targeted subsidies for poorer families and those dependant on cars for work.

The big price-totems outside filling stations and in supermarket car-parks – a better guide to the gloomy provincial mood than opinion polls – are already showing petrol and diesel at over €2 a litre.

The government’s 2022 freeze on gas prices and the 4 percent cap on electricity bills for households and small businesses will also disappear at the end of next month.

From January, energy price rises will be limited to 15 percent – still much lower than in other countries.  Unfortunately for the government, French people do not compare their power bills with those of “other countries”.

Food price inflation began with the post-Covid boom and was worsened by hot, dry summers and the Ukraine war. It has been lower in France than in other places. A government report this month found that – far from price gouging – the French farming, food and retail industries have been cutting profit margins to prevent consumer prices from rising even higher.

Unfortunately for the government, French shoppers do not (except a very few) look at supermarket prices elsewhere. Faced with a €120 shopping bill that once cost less than less €100, they tend not to say: “Thank God, we are not British or Belgian or German”.

This is what the senior official means when he warns that the country is paddling towards a “January waterfall”. The government had hoped that market prices for petrol and diesel would have fallen by now – compensating for the loss or reduction of state subsidies. They have not.

Electricity and gas bills will shoot up by 15 percent in the New Year – just as France faces the prospect of selective power cuts. Repairs to its ailing fleet of nuclear power plants remain behind schedule.

EXPLAINED What your French energy bills will look like in 2023

Leclerc also warned on Monday that a “tsunami” of new food price rises lies ahead. Inflation was being “normalised”, he said – in other words producers were unwilling to cut their margins indefinitely. A spiral of higher costs and higher prices was being built into the system.

“Felt” or everyday inflation is mostly food inflation. The poorer the family or the individual, the bigger the share of income spent on food. The government has also tried to soften the impact of high prices on the poor. Apart from the energy subsidies, it sent a €100 “cheque” to all households on low or modest incomes this Autumn.

Unfortunately for the government, memories are short and supermarket prices are high – €100 does not go very far when the price of flour and fish-fingers is rocketing.

When power bills explode and food price spike this winter who will thank the government for sparing France the worst of inflation in 2022?

An opinion poll this week found that 89 percent of French people were miserable about their immediate future. France, unlike other countries, does not do passive gloom for long.

Troubled waters, whether a  “waterfall” or a “tsunami”, lie ahead. 

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