Diplomatic discord between Algeria and France deepened on Sunday after Algiers banned French military aircraft from its airspace, its latest response to a visa dispute and comments critical of President Emmanuel Macron.
French planes regularly fly over the former French colony to reach the Sahel region in West Africa, where its soldiers are helping fight jihadist insurgents as part of their Operation Barkhane.
A spokesman for the French Armed Forces said that Algeria had closed its airspace to two flights, but that it would have “no major consequences” for operations in the Sahel region.
“This morning, when we presented the flight plans for two planes, we learned that the Algerians had stopped the flights of French military planes over their territory,” French Armed Forces spokesman Colonel Pascal Ianni told AFP.
He said the decision had “slightly affected” supply flights, but “does not affect our operations” in the Sahel.
Ianni said there had been no official notification of the flight ban, and the French Foreign Ministry, contacted by AFP, declined to comment.
The move increased tensions that had already erupted on Saturday when the Algerian government withdrew its ambassador to France, citing “unacceptable interference” in its affairs.
Algeria’s ‘official history’ ‘totally rewritten’
According to French and Algerian media reports, Macron told descendants of figures from Algeria’s 1954-62 war of independence that the country was governed by a “political-military system” that had “totally rewritten” its history. .
“You can see that the Algerian system is tired, it has been weakened by the Hirak,” he added, referring to the pro-democracy movement that forced Abdelaziz Bouteflika to leave power in 2019 after two decades at the helm.
The comments, published in the French daily Le Monde, quoted Macron as saying that Algeria has an “official history” that has been “totally rewritten.”
He said that this story “is not based on truths” but “on a hate speech towards France”, according to Le Monde.
“Was there an Algerian nation before French colonization?” Macron allegedly asked.
Algeria gained its independence from France in 1962 after a bloody military struggle. Since independence, the ruling elite of the North African country has been drawn largely from the veterans of its war of liberation from France.
Protesters in the Hirak movement have been calling for political change in the gas-rich country, particularly with the clientelistic system that has enriched Algeria’s elites.
Last year, the Algerian government criminalized the dissemination of what it considers “false news” that undermines national unity.
The ambassador’s withdrawal on Saturday was the second time he did so, as he received a similar response in May 2020 after French media broadcast a documentary on the Hirak movement.
Algerian officials have cracked down on efforts to revive pro-democracy protests, and human rights groups say dozens of people linked to it have been jailed in recent months.
Macron’s office did not deny the reported comments, but said the president was discussing the war in Algeria with young French people and answering questions, not granting an official interview.
Tensions rise over the visa issue
The latest diplomatic tensions came amid tensions over the French decision to drastically reduce the number of visas it grants to citizens of Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia.
Paris said the decision had been necessary because the former colonies did not do enough to allow illegal immigrants in France to be returned.
When a French court denies a person’s visa application, authorities must still obtain a consular travel pass from their home country to forcibly remove them, a document that Paris says Algiers, Rabat and Tunisia largely refuse. to provide.
Macron has reportedly ordered the number of visa deliveries to Algeria and Morocco cut in half from 2020 levels, and by a third to Tunisia.
The Algerian Foreign Ministry summoned the French ambassador, François Gouyette, on Wednesday to make a “formal protest” over the visa ruling.