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Algeria has closed its airspace to French military planes supporting the campaign against Islamist insurgents in the Sahel, the latest phase of a worsening row between the North African country and the former colonial power.
Algeria spans a large territory between the Mediterranean and the nations of Mali and Niger south of the Sahara. France confirmed on Sunday that flights had been blocked. “We have had to make adjustments, but Algeria’s decision will not impact French operations in Africa’s Sahel region,” said a military spokesman.
Emmanuel Macron, president of France, is also embroiled in a dispute with Mali’s military junta, which has accused Paris of leaving it in the lurch by cutting its anti-terrorist operations in the Sahel region. The junta has threatened to hire Russian mercenaries to fight the insurgents.
Algeria’s decision on overflights came a day after the country recalled its ambassador to Paris amid a war of words exacerbated by statements from Macron.
Relations were already strained over Paris’s decision last week to slash the number of visas granted to Algerians, Tunisians and Moroccans, with France blaming the decision on the refusal of the three governments to take back illegal migrants to be repatriated by French authorities.
The Algerian foreign ministry summoned France’s ambassador on Wednesday to protest against the visa decision.
The dispute worsened after remarks by Macron at a meeting with 18 young people of Algerian origin at the Elysée last Thursday to try to heal the wounds in France arising from the Algerian war of independence that have persisted for generations.
In the course of the meeting, covered by the newspaper Le Monde, he criticised what he called the Algerian state’s “rewriting of history” based not on facts but on discourse that depended on “hatred of France”.
When he was told that young Algerians did not in fact hate France, Macron said: “I’m not talking about Algerian society but about the politico-military system which is built on this exploitation of memory . . . I have a good dialogue with President [Abdelmadjid] Tebboune, but I can see that he is caught in a very hardline system.”
Tebboune responded furiously, criticising Macron’s statements as “inadmissible interference” in his country’s affairs and an “intolerable affront” to millions of Algerians who died fighting French occupation from 1850 until independence in 1962.
“The crimes of colonial France in Algeria are innumerable and fit the strongest definitions of genocide,” said Tebboune. There were some in France, he said, who wanted to hide acts by the colonial power such as “massacres” and the destruction of villages.
Macron is seen as having gone further than his predecessors at the Elysée Palace to push France to come to terms with its colonial past, calling colonialism “a crime against humanity” and acknowledging the French state’s role in the torture of Algerian independence fighters — although he has stopped short of a full apology to Algeria.
In Algeria, however, the visa decision and his remarks on history have been interpreted by some as an attempt to woo voters in a presidential election campaign in which his toughest competitors are rightwingers opposed to immigration.
France and Algeria have significant political and economic ties but their relationship is complex with huge sensitivities arising from their shared history which periodically flare up into diplomatic rows.