Stephane Sejourne appointment as Foreign Minister is symbolic of Paris’s perceived fumbling of key North African issues
France’s appointment of a new foreign minister has reignited debate on Paris’s handling of key issues across North Africa, including tighter visa restrictions for migrants and the perception of it meddling in internal affairs.
Stephane Sejourne, who as a Member of the European Parliament (MEP) angered Morocco by accusing Rabat of corruption and human rights abuse, is now the French Foreign Minister.
The appointment comes after a string of diplomatic gaffes by President Emmanuel Macron that have soured relations with Algeria and Tunisia, amid mounting anger at France’s perceived support for Israel in the Gaza war.
As a result, the countries of North Africa could strengthen ties with other European countries and, in some cases, China and Russia.
Since Mr Macron’s election as Presidentin 2017 and policy changes in the Maghreb, it has become increasingly evident that former colonial power France – which has played a major role in North Africa since the end of its empire starting 1956 – is losing influence.
Russia seems to sense an opportunity, too, with President Vladimir Putin in December saying Moscow was “preparing agreements on a free-trade area with Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria. It’s all of North Africa.”
After years of dependence on France and other European partners for economic aid and investment, developments have made these countries seek alternative allies.
For example, France exports about $2 billion of goods a year to Tunisia, with about $4.5 billion in exports the other way.
But China is looking to catch up, with Belt and Road infrastructure promises and its potential involvement in projects such as the University Hospital of Sfax and the Melegue Dam near El Kef.
Russia has also shown growing interest in Tunisia, with high-level diplomatic meetings and promises of more wheat shipments to alleviate a food crisis, in part caused by the Ukraine war.
“France’s arrogance and its continuing exploitation of countries of the southern Mediterranean region as well as considering them dependent – despite the geopolitical changes in the region – has made its influence fall back,” Mohamed Bououd, a Tunisian political analyst, told media.
France’s role in migration crisis negotiations has also shrunk, as Italy took the mantle of mediator of talks between the EU and a group of North African nations, Mr Bououd said.
In recent years, France’s role as a primary source of help to the countries of the Maghreb has shrunk, despite millions of euros in investment, such as $200 million budget to support Tunisia in late 2022.
Other countries have stepped in at France’s expense: Morocco has turned towards Spain and Portugal, Tunisia to Russia and China.
Algeria’s ties with Russia have always been strong, stemming from the Soviet Union’s support for the country during its war of independence.
However, since the war in Ukraine started, Algerian-Russian ties have grown stronger, with the two countries’ signing a strategic partnership pact in June after President Abdelmajid Tebboune’s visit to the Kremlin.
Russia and Algeria held joint naval drills in the western Mediterranean in December. China, meanwhile, is investing heavily in El Hamdania port and is investing increasingly in Algeria’s energy sector.
Algeria has faced criticism from the West, with members of the US Senate calling for sanctions on the North African country over its $7 billion purchase of weapons from Russia in 2021.