Taking place amid the global clamor leading up to the Iraq war, French President Jacques Chirac’s two-day visit to Algeria in the beginning of March 2003 passed all but unnoticed in the United States. Yet for those interested in understanding France’s role in the crisis, the trip presented an unrivalled opportunity to grasp the context against which French diplomacy should be viewed. Specifically, Chirac’s visit illuminated the complex interconnections between the multiple strands of French domestic and foreign policy.
The official purpose of Chirac’s trip, the first state visit by a French president to the former colony since its independence in 1962, was to “recast” France’s relationship with Algeria. But he was interested in far more than just Franco-Algerian relations. Chirac was also trying to woo Arabs and Muslims on both sides of the Mediterranean while promoting a specific vision of France to both domestic and international audiences. Domestically, Chirac’s visit was intended to promote a vision of a modern, multicultural France that could appeal to the substantial—and restive—Arab and Muslim population of France. Internationally, the trip to Algeria presented Chirac with an opportunity to give concrete expression to his vision of an alternative world order that challenged American leadership.
The key to understanding Chirac’s Algeria trip is to recognize Algeria as ground zero for French relations with Arabs, Muslims, and, indirectly, all of Francophone Africa. Algeria was the jewel of the French Empire and was, in many ways, synonymous with Empire itself. Conquering, colonizing, and holding onto Algeria implicated French national identity and French republican ideology far more than any other colonial possession. Winning the terrible 1830-1847 Algerian war was post-Napoleonic France’s most audacious undertaking, and the French regarded the colony as confirmation of France’s grandeur as well as its place in the van of Western civilization.