Fifty years after Algerian freedom, youths take fresh look at France

Younger Algerians have a more pragmatic approach to France, Algeria's former colonial master. They view engagement with the West as a necessity, especially for creating jobs through investment. 

Louafi Larbi/Reuters
Algerian actors reenact the Algerian war against France during the celebration of fifty years of independence from France, which occupied Algeria for 132 years, in Algiers on Thursday, July 5.

Like many people in the city of Souk Ahras, in eastern Algeria, Kamel Osmane’s grandfather supported the war. He baked bread for the guerrillas and hid weapons in his bakery. Before long, he was arrested by the French.

“We’re better off today in that we’re no longer ‘les indigènes’ -- we’re independent,” says Mr. Osmane, a business consultant in Algiers. “But society is in crisis, and governance must change.”

On Thursday, Algerians marked 50 years since their country won independence from France, ending decades of colonial rule. A key question now is what role awaits young Algerians like Mr. Osmane as aging leaders enter their twilight and a generation that has a much more pragmatic view of how their country should interact with France, and with the Western world, starts to take over. The Algeria this generation will inherit is a work in progress, in apparent mid-step between the socialist anticolonialism of decades past and a turn toward free-market economics and partnership with Western countries. 

France and Algeria remain closely linked by, language, migration, and a complex history. For Osmane, a Paris-educated business consultant, the country that tortured his grandfather is also the one that helped offer him a path to achievement.

“I’d have liked to study in the UK or US, but it’s more complicated,” he says. “France for us is the gateway to the West.”

How Algeria has made its peace with France, and dealt with the common problems of North African countries -- youth unemployment, poor government service, and growing economic frustration -- is worthy of study. The West came to Algeria in 1827 when the French consul and the Dey of Algiers met to discuss French debts to Algerian merchants. Tempers rose, and the Dey struck the consul with a fly-whisk. France blockaded Algiers, the Dey fired on a French ship, and in 1830, France invaded.

A century later, Algeria was officially part of a greater France through which the Mediterranean was said to flow like the Seine through Paris. But Algerians remained second-class to thousands of European inhabitants.

Revolt was launched in 1954 by the National Liberation Front (FLN). Many Algerians backed independence, others France. Both sides descended to depths of cruelty. Osmane’s grandfather was beaten and electrocuted during eight years in jail.

In 1962, Frenchmen weary of war voted overwhelmingly to set Algeria loose. Most European residents – and some loyalist Algerians - embarked for France.

In Algeria, a power struggle among FLN leaders was followed by one-party rule until 1989. In 1992, the country slid into a decade of civil war after the Army cancelled elections that an Islamist party looked set to win. Calm has slowly returned since the 1999 election of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika.

However, many Algerians say their graying leaders – Mr. Bouteflika is 75 – have failed to use the country’s oil wealth to improve public services and bring down high youth unemployment. Around three quarters of Algerians are under 35.

“The generation that has led since independence were young when they came to power,” Osmane says. “Today Algeria looks like an image of them growing old.”

How easily can younger generation take over?

Last May, Bouteflika said in a speech aimed at young Algerians that “my generation has had its day,” and called on youths to assume leadership.

It remains unclear how easy that might be. Political parties tend to favor veterans over younger members, say analysts, while younger officers in the powerful military are an unknown quantity.

“You’ll have a young generation of leaders,” says Jon Marks, an Algeria expert and chairman of Cross-Border Information, a British risk assessment firm. “Unless there’s a radical change, they will be schooled in the traditions of Algerian politics.”

Osmane, meanwhile, hopes to help empower a different sort of leader. It was while working at a Paris bank and starting a doctorate in economics at the Sorbonne that he launched Medafco in 2007, a business consultancy aimed at Algeria’s diaspora.

“I had worked at an Algerian bank and realized that banks here had at least $30 billion of surplus liquidity – extra money that they hadn’t managed to invest,” he says.

One problem is thickets of bureaucracy and corruption that surround business life in Algeria, he says. Another is potential entrepreneurs who don’t know the ropes.

That’s where Medafco comes in. The consultancy is run from a villa in Ain Benian, a seaside suburb of Algiers. Osmane has built a team of lawyers, academics, and accountants, and reached out to Algerians abroad.

“We’re not saying come back to be patriotic – it’s come back to make money,” he says. “Because if you’re making money, you’re creating jobs.”

Osmane’s vision would run counter to years of Algerians looking north – not south – to realize their dreams.

France remains Algeria’s top economic partner and is home to around 1.6 million Frenchmen of Algerian descent following an influx of migrant workers during the 1960s and '70s, according to official figures from 1999. Today, however, the door has all but slammed shut.

Discrimination

Concern for jobs in a sluggish economy and fears that Islam clashes with French values of laicité – exclusion of religion from public life – have soured France on immigration and help fuel what many minorities call discrimination against them.

“Discrimination is illegal, but it’s real,” says Arun Kapil, a political science professor at the Institut Catholique de Paris. But compared to past decades, “there’s much more awareness and discussion of it today.”

The issue was explored in the 2010 comedy film “L’Italien.” Dino – real name Mourad – has built a plush life selling Maseratis by hiding his Algerian roots. Then he tries to observe Ramadan – fasting, prayer, and sexual abstinence - in secret, with hilarious results.

Statistics paint a more sobering picture. French-born children of parents from outside the European Union suffer 24.2 percent unemployment – nearly three times the rate for children of French-born parents, said a report last month by France’s High Council on Integration.

The far-right Front National party wants to end immigration almost entirely. In May, its presidential candidate Marine Le Pen captured 17.9 percent of the vote in the first round of two-round elections won by François Hollande, from the Socialist Party.

Mr. Hollande’s election, plus a Socialist Party victory in legislative elections last month, could see France softening its policy on immigration, Mr. Kapil says.

In Algeria, Osmane sees political change as key to convincing Algerians a reason to stay home – or return.

“There is a gap between young people and old leaders,” he says. He wants the government to invest more on educating young entrepreneurs. “Algeria’s greatest resource is not oil, it’s people.”

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