The prospect of an Islamist victory in Algeria has alarmed French policymakers and politicians across the political spectrum. The French right, from the National Front’s Jean Le Pen to Gaullist Interior Minister Charles Pasqua have, in varying degrees, raised the specter of Algerian “boat people” swarming across the Mediterranean to threaten the very basis of French civilization. Centrists and socialists excused the Algerian army’s cancellation of the 1991 parliamentary elections by arguing that the Islamists were anti-democratic anyway. The geostrategists among them feared that an Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) regime would spread its revolution to the rest of North Africa and the Middle East and cut gas supplies to the continent.

These strategic aspects, Paris hoped, would generate sympathetic concern from the US and France’s European allies. The Bush administration remained usefully silent when the Algerian elections were canceled, but the Clinton administration has subtly moved toward a stance more accommodating to the FIS. Other European governments are also taking a more careful look at French policy, although no overt shift has occurred in their public attitudes. This divergence has come as Paris and Algiers are attempting to gain support for the latest “solution” to Algeria’s deep economic and political crisis: an IMF structural adjustment program, Paris Club rescheduling and a new infusion of official credits.

French policy in Algeria, a reactive one, has relied heavily on Algeria’s Francophone elite for information. This has created serious intelligence failures. French policy has in fact lacked clear direction. Since the 1992 coup, President Francois Mitterand has repeatedly said that it is up to the Algerian people to choose their government, but Paris never pressed the Algerian generals to return to the electoral process. When the army began its crackdown against the FIS, France hid behind Muhammad Boudiaf, hoping that his charisma could create a political alternative and that military success against the Islamists would allow the state to negotiate from a stronger position. When that option collapsed, Paris backed the conciliatory stance of the new president, Lamine Zeroual.

When the Algerian regime returned to a hardline position in November 1994, it could count on increased French military supplies, including helicopters and night vision equipment. Essentially, Paris regards elections as a way to diffuse crises, and would be content with a large coalition government comprised of the military, members of the FLN and Berber parties, and a few moderate FIS supporters setting the social agenda.

The disappearance of Mitterrand from the foreign policy scene has also played a role. France’s Algeria policy is now geared to maintain the status quo until France’s presidential elections in April 1995. Algeria has become a major issue in French politics, offering great opportunities for the two conservative presidential contenders, Paris mayor Jacques Chirac and Prime Minister Edouard Balladur. Interior Minister Pasqua’s bid to be prime minister next year, if Balladur becomes president, will depend on his capturing a large part of the right-wing vote. His recent expulsion of 20 Algerians to Burkina Faso — using a 1938 decree tailored to expel foreigners without judiciary intervention — has improved his local image. Pasqua and the right have inflamed the Algerian issue for domestic electoral purposes, in the process checking the more traditional foreign policy line of political reconciliation pushed by Foreign Minister Alain Juppe.

The current US position, a departure from the deference to Paris exhibited by the Bush administration, calls on the Algerian government to engage in a dialogue with the FIS political leadership, which it distinguishes from “terrorists” who are killing Algerian and foreign civilians. The US has also allowed the chairman of the FIS parliamentary caucus, Anouar Haddam, to set up offices in Washington and Chicago.

The new US position coincides with the Clinton administration’s “democracy” rhetoric, conveniently used only when the US can afford to take the moral high ground. This new approach is also a way to test a new stance toward the entire Middle East, by signaling that the US is capable of making distinctions among Islamist groups and is not invariably opposed to political Islam, especially if this would mean avoiding the mistake made in Iran by the US unequivocally supporting the status quo.

This new policy has not hurt US economic interests in Algeria. The Algerian government has shown partiality to US oil companies interested in investing there; some 54 percent of new oil license agreements have been with US companies (not including a recently announced $1.3 billion Arco deal). The armed Islamic groups have also conspicuously avoided US targets, and the FIS leadership openly talks of “diversifying” foreign economic relations after it comes to power.

At the June 1994 G-7 meeting, Clinton agreed to temper US criticism of France’s policy so long as the Zeroual government pushed for dialogue and supported the IMF-Paris Club deal. The return to violent repression in November is likely to reignite disputes between the two Western allies, already at loggerheads over Iraq, Rwanda and Bosnia. Some have suggested that US interference in an issue traditionally dominated by the French was precipitated by French “designs” on Iraqi oil. This was confirmed by Assistant Secretary of State Robert Pelletreau’s June 1994 remarks in Paris, to the effect that a return of Iraqi oil to international markets would aggravate the economic crisis in Algeria.

Where all this will lead largely depends on what happens in Algeria. France is likely to be extremely hostile to a FIS-led government and could, like the US in the case of Iran, remain a major disruptive force in what Anouar Haddam calls the eventual “normalization&rqduo; of Algerian foreign policy. Whether the FIS or its affiliates can secure good relations with the US is an important side issue, but the Paris-Algiers interplay will remain the determining factor.

How to cite this article:

Roger Diwan, Fareed Mohamedi "Paris, Washington, Algiers," Middle East Report 192 (January/February 1995).

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