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POLITICS

What is behind the diplomatic spat between France and Algeria?

A row over visas between France and Algeria, its former colony, has escalated quickly. Some rather undiplomatic comments from President Macron didn't help.

President Macron's description of Algeria as a
(Photo by Michel Euler / POOL / AFP)

The diplomatic discord between Algeria and France deepened on Sunday after Algiers banned French military planes from its airspace, its latest response to a row over visas and critical comments from President Emmanuel Macron.

France’s jets regularly fly over the former French colony to reach the Sahel region of western Africa, where its soldiers are helping to battle jihadist insurgents as part of its Barkhane operation.

“This morning when we filed flight plans for two planes, we learned that the Algerians had stopped flights over their territory by French military planes,” an army spokesman, Colonel Pascal Ianni, told AFP.

He said the decision had “slightly impacted” supply flights but “does not affect our operations” in the Sahel.

The French intelligence-gathering operations in the Sahel using Reaper drones were affected by the new restrictions, Ianni added. Those drones operate out of Niamey in Niger and do not fly over Algeria.

The army had received no official notification of the flight ban, he added.

But the move heightened tensions that had already flared Saturday when the Algerian government recalled its ambassador to France, citing “inadmissible interference” in its affairs.

According to French and Algerian media reports, Macron told descendants of figures in Algeria’s 1954-62 war for independence that the country was ruled by a “political-military system” that had “totally re-written” 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 from power in 2019 after two decades at the helm.

READ MORE: Macron: No apology for French abuses in Algeria

Macron’s office did not deny the reported comments, but said the president was discussing the war in Algeria with French youths and answering questions, not giving an official interview.

Ianni said there had been no official notification of the flight ban, and the French foreign ministry, contacted by AFP, declined to comment.

– Visa protest –

Last year, the Algerian government criminalised the dissemination of what it considers “false news” that harms national unity.

Saturday’s ambassador recall was the second time it had done so, having taken a similar response in May 2020 after French media broadcast a documentary about the Hirak movement.

Algerian officials have cracked down on efforts to revive the pro-democracy protests, and rights groups say dozens of people linked to it have been jailed in recent months.

Algiers was also angered last week after France said it would sharply reduce the number of visas it grants to citizens of Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia.

Paris said the decision had been made necessary by the former colonies’ failure to do enough to allow illegal migrants in France to be returned.

READ MORE: France slashes visas for Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia in migrant row

When a French court denies a person’s visa request, authorities must still secure a consular travel pass from his or her home country in order to forcibly expel them, a document that Paris says Algiers, Rabat and Tunis are largely refusing to provide.

Macron has reportedly ordered the number of visa deliveries to Algeria and Morocco to be halved from 2020 levels, and by a third for Tunisia.

The Algerian foreign ministry summoned France’s ambassador Francois Gouyette on Wednesday to make a “formal protest” of the visa ruling.

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ENERGY

EXPLAINED: Why are French energy prices capped?

As energy prices soar around Europe, France is the notable exception where most people have seen no significant rise in their gas or electricity bills - so what lies behind this policy? (Hint - it's not just that the French would riot if their bills exploded).

EXPLAINED: Why are French energy prices capped?

On most international comparisons of rising energy prices, France is the outlier – but the government control of energy prices is not in fact a new policy and was in place well before the Russian invasion of Ukraine sent gas and electricity prices soaring.

At present prices for domestic gas are frozen at 2021 levels and electricity prices can only increase four percent per year. According to economy minister Bruno Le Maire, without these measures French bills would have risen by 60 percent for gas and 45 percent for electricity.

Both these measures – collectively known as the bouclier tarifaire (tariff shield) – are in place until at least the end of 2022, and could be extended into 2023.

The extension of the price shield was confirmed by parliament earlier in August – part of a €65 billion package of measures aimed at tackling the cost-of-living crisis – but had been in place for much longer.

Tariff shield

The reason that gas prices are frozen at 2021 levels is that the freeze came into effect on November 1st 2021 – well before Russia’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine.

The measure was initially put in place to help people deal with the economic after-effects of the pandemic, but was extended in the spring of 2022, when electricity prices were also capped at four percent.

Price regulation

But although prolonged price freezes are unusual, the French government involvement in price-setting is completely normal and during non-freeze periods, a rate is set each month.

If you read French media (or The Local), you’ll notice regular articles on ‘what changes next month’ which include gas and electricity prices, usually expressed as a month-on-month percentage rise or fall. This refers to the maximum rate that utility companies are allowed to increase their charges per month.

The government-set rate refers to the basic price plan from EDF. Some people are on special deals or time-limited tariffs, so if their deal or payment plan ends and they go back onto the basic rate, they can see a rise above the government rate.

Around 85 percent of households in France get their electricity from EDF. 

READ MORE: Reader Question: Why did my French electricity bill increase by more than 4%

State-owned utilities

So, why is the government involved? Well, it’s the majority stakeholder in EDF, the country’s largest electricity supplier, and owns Gaz de France (Engie). 

At present EDF isn’t completely state owned – although there are plans to fully nationalise it – but it owns 84 percent.

The French state owns a lot of service and utility companies including the country’s rail provider SNCF, postal service La Poste and France Télévisions. One notable exception is the country’s autoroutes, which are run by private companies, although the government sets limits on toll charges. 

Nuclear 

France is less exposed to energy shocks than some other European countries because of its nuclear sector.

It is unusual among European nations in the size of its nuclear industry – around 70 percent of electricity comes from its own domestic nuclear power plants, although during the heatwave several plants have had to lower output as rivers have become too hot to effectively cool the reactors. There are also ongoing technical issues that have seen some of the older plants shut down or forced to lower output.

READ ALSO Why is France so obsessed with nuclear?

France is usually a net exporter of electricity, but at peak times it has to import electricity, usually via the high-priced international spot market.

It does, however, import its gas, mostly via pipeline – in 2020 its biggest supplier was Norway, followed by Russia.

The French government has launched a sobriété energetique (energy sobriety) plan to cut its total energy consumption by 10 percent this year, which it hopes will allow it to get through the winter without Russian gas. 

Riots

Even before the recent €65 billion aid package, the French government was taking a pro-active role in helping people deal with rising prices – from the price shield to fuel rebates for drivers, €100 grants for low-income households and financial aid for industries such as agriculture and logistics so they could avoid passing prices on the consumers.

Cynics say this happened for two reasons – because there were elections in April and June and because the French would riot if their utility bills suddenly doubled.

There’s a kernel of truth in both – cost of living became a major issue in the April presidential elections and one that far-right leader Marine Le Pen very much made her own from early in the campaign, leaving Emmanuel Macron slightly on the back foot, although in truth his government had already introduced several measures to ease the burden on ordinary voters.

It’s also true that the French have a robust approach to holding their government to account, and high living costs have previously inspired noisy and sometime violent protests – the ‘yellow vest’ movement of 2018 and 19 began as a protest over living costs.

But it’s also true that the French State is generally quite involved in people’s everyday lives – as evidenced by those monthly gas and electricity price rates – and taking a laissez-faire approach such as that seen in the UK would be unusual for any French government, even outside of election season.

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