French crisis over Algeria gaffe

The French government was yesterday facing an embarrassing diplomatic and political crisis as a result of President Francois Mitterrand's latest idea for a European conference on Algeria. The initiative broached by Mr Mitterrand at a meeting with Jacques Santer, the President of the European Commission, on Friday, has so far brought the recall of the Algerian ambassador from Paris, a torrent of abuse against France in the Algerian media and a rift between Mr Mitterrand and the government of the Prime Minister, Edouard Balladur, signalled by some careful, but less than polite comment from senior officials.

What seemed at the outset to be a well-meaning, if probably unrealistic, suggestion by the outgoing President has seriously rebounded on France and threatens to bring Algeria back on to the French political agenda just when Paris least wants it there.

The Algerian military-backed government is angry on several counts. It considers that France acted high-handedly in proposing such a conference without consulting or informing Algiers and noted in a Foreign Ministry statement that: "Algeria will not accept any interference in its internal affairs."

Algiers also see the proposal for a European conference as an unwelcome sign that France may be reviewing its support for the military government. This fear is based on Mr Mitterrand's statement that he had been inspired by the "different ideas" voiced recently, "including [those] at the conferences of the Algerian opposition in Rome".

The Rome conference, which took place three weeks ago, involved representatives of Islamic fundamentalist groups, and drafted proposals for a settlement of the civil war. These were welcomed by most European countries, but rejected outright by the Algerian government. Over the past two years France has continued to support the government in Algiers even though it was holding on to power by force, having lost an election to the fundamentalists. The French view was that the fundamentalists had to be kept out of power at all costs.

Although Mr Mitterrand couched his proposal in very tentative terms, describing it as a "hope", not an initiative, it clearly caught his own government unawares. On Sunday night the Interior Minister, Charles Pasqua - the man who oversaw the commando operation that ended the Air France hijacking by Algerian terrorists at Christmas, and a noted hardliner on internal security - said, weighing his words, that the government had "probably" not been informed. Yesterday an official at the French Foreign Ministry was quoted as regretting the lack of consultation. "We still don't know what is in the President's initiative," the official added.

In "normal" times, perhaps, this lack of consultation would not have been particularly embarrassing to the government. Foreign policy is traditionally regarded as the President's prerogative and the fact that a Socialist President had not mentioned his initiative to a conservative government might have been no cause for surprise.

These, however, are not normal times. Mr Mitterrand's presidency is near its end. His power and influence are already minimal. The right has a large majority in parliament and is confidently expected to provide the next President. What is more, the government of Mr Balladur has been increasingly active in foreign policy on its own account, and one of its apparent priorities has been to preserve the fragile status quo in Algeria and prevent it from becoming an election issue - for two good reasons.

First, the government is itself divided on the subject and any public discussion would make those divisions even clearer. On one side is Mr Pasqua, who wants no compromise with terrorism; on the other, are the Defence Minister, Francois Leotard, who said in a recent Figaro article that it was time to consider talking to the Algerian opposition, and the Foreign Minister, Alain Juppe. Mr Balladur, as Prime Minister, has kept quiet on the subject, apparently hoping to keep the peace in his government.

The other reason why the government is so keen to preserve the status quo in Algeria is the fear that any escalation of the violence there or precipitate change of regime could start a huge influx of refugees into France. This would, it is predicted, massively increase support for the far right party of Jean-Marie Le Pen. Mr Balladur and his main rival on the right, Jacques Chirac, want to prevent any possible upset in the coming presidential elections.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Life and Style
Fans line up at the AVNs, straining to capture a photo of their favourite star
life Tim Walker asks how much longer it can flesh out an existence
Life and Style
Every minute of every day, Twitter is awash with anger as we seek to let these organisations know precisely what we think of them
techWhen it comes to vitriol, no one on attracts our ire more than big businesses offering bad service
News
Professor David Nutt wants to change the way gravely ill patients are treated in Britain
people Why does a former Government tsar believe that mind-altering drugs have a place on prescription?
News
Norway’s ‘The Nordland Line – Minute by Minute, Season by Season’ continues the trend of slow TV
television
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Arts and Entertainment
art
Sport
Jonny Evans has pleaded not guilty to an FA charge for spitting at Papiss Cisse
football
Life and Style
Kate Moss will make a cameo appearance in David Walliams' The Boy in the Dress
fashion
News
The image released by the Salvation Army, using 'The Dress'
news
Sport
Liverpool defender Kolo Toure
football Defender could make history in the FA Cup, but African Cup of Nations win means he's already content
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Technical Presales Consultant - London - £65,000 OTE.

£65000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Technical Presales Engineer - central London ...

Recruitment Genius: Physiotherapist / Sports Therapist

£20000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Physiotherapist / Sports Ther...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive / Advisor

£8 - £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Sales Executives / Advisors are required...

Recruitment Genius: Warehouse Operative

£14000 - £15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen for a...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans campaign: Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after £300,000 gift from Lloyds Bank

Homeless Veterans campaign

Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after huge gift from Lloyds Bank
Flight MH370 a year on: Lost without a trace – but the search goes on

Lost without a trace

But, a year on, the search continues for Flight MH370
Germany's spymasters left red-faced after thieves break into brand new secret service HQ and steal taps

Germany's spy HQ springs a leak

Thieves break into new €1.5bn complex... to steal taps
International Women's Day 2015: Celebrating the whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

Whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

Simone de Beauvoir's seminal feminist polemic, 'The Second Sex', has been published in short-form for International Women's Day
Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Why would I want to employ someone I’d be happy to have as my boss, asks Simon Kelner
Confessions of a planespotter: With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent

Confessions of a planespotter

With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent. Sam Masters explains the appeal
Russia's gulag museum 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities

Russia's gulag museum

Ministry of Culture-run site 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities
The big fresh food con: Alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay

The big fresh food con

Joanna Blythman reveals the alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay
Virginia Ironside was my landlady: What is it like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7?

Virginia Ironside was my landlady

Tim Willis reveals what it's like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7
Paris Fashion Week 2015: The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp

Paris Fashion Week 2015

The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp
8 best workout DVDs

8 best workout DVDs

If your 'New Year new you' regime hasn’t lasted beyond February, why not try working out from home?
Paul Scholes column: I don't believe Jonny Evans was spitting at Papiss Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible

Paul Scholes column

I don't believe Evans was spitting at Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible
Miguel Layun interview: From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

Miguel Layun is a star in Mexico where he was criticised for leaving to join Watford. But he says he sees the bigger picture
Frank Warren column: Amir Khan ready to meet winner of Floyd Mayweather v Manny Pacquiao

Khan ready to meet winner of Mayweather v Pacquiao

The Bolton fighter is unlikely to take on Kell Brook with two superstar opponents on the horizon, says Frank Warren
War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable