A change of French tone?
A change of French tone?
The Economist, october 11th 1997
THE Algerian authorities have spent the past two weeks slapping down United Nations officials and foreign governments for daring to say that the world must do something about the seemingly endless slaughter in Algeria. The latest to get this treatment are the French and the Italians. They had been making pretty unspecific noises about efforts to promote a reconciliation. After talking to Italy’s prime minister. Romano Prodi, France’s President Jacques Chirac told journalists that Italy had offered to try to help to restore peace in Algeria and that, because of its excellent ties with the country, it was well placed to do so.
No way, came the response. Algeria’s foreign minister, Ahmed Attaf, held a press conference at which, according to the state radio, he « categorically, firmly and definitely rejected the French stand aimed at spurring and fostering meddling in our internal affairs. » A few days earlier. Mr Attaf had rebuked the UN human-rights commissioner, Mary Robinson, for saying that the scale or the Atrocities in Algeria made them a matter of international concern.
The recent spate of massacres near Algiers has given rise to a flurry of international condemnations accompanied by talk about the need to do something. The French and the Americans say they will start a dialogue on Algeria; Spain wants to set up a European « reflection cell » with Italy and France to think about responses.
Will all this add up to much? Probably not, so long as the Algerian government remains intransigent. Nor is that the only
problem. Foreign governments do not really want to get involved. The situation is too complex: the regime is opaque and riven by factional disputes, the Islamists are fragmented and distasteful to the West; the discordant parties that occupy the middle ground remain weak. Some foreign diplomats pivately say that undermining the government in Algiers could open the way to even greater chaos.
Nonetheless, one potentially significant development on the international front is the new tone in French pronouncements on Algeria. France has done more than any other to shield Algeria from international criticism and help it obtain credit from the IMF. It leads European policy-some would say non-policy-on Algeria. So far, however, French officials have been at pains to say little about the situation and. when pressed, have volunteered only that it is an internal matter for Algerians.
Even now, France clearly does not want an oven role Its bitter colonial past is still fresh in memories on both sides of the Mediterranean, and France was stung by a series of bomb attacks two years ago. Yet a new note may be creeping in. Interviewed on French television, Lionel Jospin, the prime minister, admitted recently that there was great difficulty in understanding what was happening in Algeria. He went on to say: « Here we have a fanatical and violent opposition fighting against authorities who themselves, to a certain extent, use violence and the state power. » Mr Jospin’s reference to state violence and his
assertion that the situation is not clear-cut are unprecedented from a French official-even if they lead nowhere. Needless to say, his remarks have prompted a barrage of criticism in the Algerian press.
Meanwhile, the inexplicable horrors continue in Algeria. At least 180 civilians have been killed in the past week. Sixteen children were slaughtered and 12 kidnapped when a group of armed men ambushed a bus taking them to school in Bouinane. iust south of Algiers. A week ear-lier,11 female teachers had had their throats cut in front of their pupils in a school in the province of Belabbas. The killings, as ever, are concentrated in the centre of the country, south and west of Algiers, and most of the victims had their throats cut or were hacked to death.
In an unprecedented attack, the garrison town of Blida was recently bombarded by home-made rockets from nearby mountains where members of the GIA (the most radical of the Islamist organisations) are known to be hiding. A power cut first plunged the town into darkness, then 14 shells fell on city streets, causing panic.
The attacks came despite an army offensive against what is described as a major GIA hideout in the hillside village of Ouled Allal in Blida province. Apparently stung by press criticism of their failure to stop the massacres, the armed forces for the first time invited the local press to the theatre of operations. Algerian newspapers are full of pictures of tanks and heavy vehicles brought in to clear the mines that the GIA had planted around their stronghold. Military sources are quoted as saying that all the car bombs that have hit Algiers were manufactured in Ouled Allal.