If there is one issue that the Algerian government refuses to discuss with its counterparts in the countries concerned on the northern shores of the Mediterranean, it is that of illegal migrants

Tebboune visits France in early May on the urgent issue of migrants

photo_camera PHOTO/Russian Foreign Ministry vía REUTERS - The President of Algeria, Abdelmadjid Tebboune

During his state visit to France in the first ten days of May, Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune will have to pass the formidable test of the issue of illegal immigrants. For all the indulgence he shows towards his Algerian counterpart, French President Emmanuel Macron cannot eliminate this burning issue from the planned discussions between the two sides.

On the French side, tactful preparations are being made for those issues that bother the Algerian authorities and which they prefer to leave to fester because their treatment seems embarrassing. Starting with the "renting of memory" and ending with illegal immigrants, the French position on "Western Sahara", the subject of the old Algerian-Moroccan conflict, and the case of Algerian opponents living in France. 

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The scandal of the skulls of resistance fighters 

By making "recognition of colonial crimes" the Gordian knot of Algerian-French relations, the Algerian side has tried to trap Paris in the long term by making it feel guilty of the bloody crimes for which colonial France was responsible throughout the 132 years of occupation. Sometimes there is talk of acknowledgement of war crimes. Sometimes there are calls for repentance or a pardon. In Algiers, people do not really know what they want. As proof, the Algerian parliament itself refused to debate the issue when a parliamentary group proposed a bill on the criminalisation of colonialism in 2017. 

Even when French president Emmanuel Macron, in an attempt at appeasement, proposed a joint redaction of the history of colonisation, Algerians shunned. While Benjamin Stora, an Algerian-born French historian, was appointed by Emmanuel Macron to represent France in this joint task, the Algerian representative, Abdelmadjid Chikhi, a man who has never written a single publication and has no connection with history, was conspicuous by his silence. He contented himself with criticising Benjamin Stora's report as "not very objective". And Algiers went back to its old refrain, reproaching the absence of "official recognition by France of the crimes against humanity perpetrated during the 130 years of occupation of Algeria". What was supposed to ease tensions, as Macron hoped, ended up increasing them. 

In reality, writing history together could not excite Algeria's rulers, as it is not a populist task that could attract the attention of Algerian public opinion in order to obtain the legitimacy that is a real complex for a political-military regime that is failing at all levels. A spectacular coup is needed, the result of which can be proudly displayed as a trophy won in a hard-fought battle likely to give these leaders the image of heroes that would strike the imagination of the population.

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In the end, the Algerian generals and their civilian henchman, Abdelmadjid Tebboune, won not just one trophy, but twenty-four. Yes, twenty-four skulls that were exhibited at the Mus茅e de l'Homme in Paris and were said to belong to Algerian resistance fighters from the early years of colonisation. 

The repatriation of the skulls in July 2020 was carried out with great fanfare, and the Algerian media ran rivers of ink and spittle over the event. At the airport where he went to welcome the twenty-four skulls, Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune shed a tear caught by Algerian television cameras. Emotions were high. The repatriation of the skulls was presented as the greatest achievement of independent Algeria. Nothing less. A second victory against France. 

Unfortunately for the military-political powers, the joy was short-lived. In October 2022, the New York Times, echoed by the major French dailies, Le Monde, Le Figaro, Le Parisien and Lib茅ration, was quick to reveal the truth.  

Of the twenty-four skulls repatriated, only six were clearly identified as those of resistance fighters beheaded in the 19th century during French colonisation. "The others are not, or are of uncertain origin," stresses the New York Times, and this is echoed in major French newspapers. They go so far as to say that they are the skulls of guillotined French bandits and criminals. Shame befell Algiers, which had gloated a few months earlier. It was then decided to say nothing about this scandal. Neither the official side nor the press, described by the population as subservient to the state, would say a word. 

Worse still, the French Minister of Culture, questioned by a deputy in the National Assembly, assured that the skulls had not been returned to Algeria, but loaned for a period of five years. So there was no restitution, but rather a loan to an Algerian museum. Again, there was silence in Algiers. Questioned on the subject by a journalist in Oran on the sidelines of a conference on history, the Minister of the Former Mujahedin (Fighters) waved away the international press' revelations, stating that "the skulls were those of resistance fighters and that there was no reason for controversy".

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Illegal immigrants, the shame of an immensely wealthy country

Tebboune will not bring up this scandal on his next visit to Paris. He will act as if nothing has happened. A scandal that will have to be hushed up so as not to expose Algeria's leaders to popular vengeance. The episode of the skulls will no longer be evoked. It is already forgotten. 

But what is even more scandalous, especially when we are arguing with the former colonial power, is the massive influx of Algerians into this France that is so "unloved" in the regime's propaganda discourse. Thousands of them, from all social categories and of all ages, fled Algeria aboard ships of misfortune, risking their lives. If in the past the phenomenon of "harga" (clandestine immigration in Maghrebi) was limited to idle young people, today it is entire families, executives including journalists, doctors and lawyers, who are part of the troops that invade the Spanish coasts before continuing their journey to France. 

Of course, this phenomenon also affects Moroccans and Tunisians, as well as sub-Saharans. But unlike migrants from neighbouring countries, Algerians come from a country that is immensely rich in natural resources: gas, oil, iron, phosphate, manganese, gold, etc. Consequently, the flight of Algerians perfectly explains the poor governance of a country marked by the large number of former ministers, army generals, businessmen and high officials of the state apparatus who are in various civilian and military prisons in the country. All of them are imprisoned for illicit enrichment and embezzlement of public funds.  

It is the image of a country of thieves and crooks who have impoverished the people that Tebboune brings back to his French interlocutors by opening the file on illegal emigrants. This is an issue that the Algerian authorities never wish to raise, fearing the question "what have you done with your country's independence?" that will hover over Franco-Algerian discussions. Of course, the French would never venture to offend their Algerian partners. But the question will be implicitly imposed. Whether we like it or not.