In 1645, the young Louis XIV laid the cornerstone to the church of Val-de-Grâce, built to celebrate his birth seven years earlier. A century and a half later, the French Revolution transformed the church into a military hospital. But as its current patient, President Abdelaziz Bouteflika of Algeria, reminds us, Val-de-Grâce’s ties to monarchic power and empire continue to the present day.
From the moment Bouteflika arrived in Paris nearly a month ago after suffering a minor stroke, Algerians have suffered a news blackout. The Algerian government has treated the event rather like its military operation during the hostage crisis at a gas facility in the Sahara earlier this year: with intense secrecy and overwhelming force.
Two newspapers were censured last week for reporting that Bouteflika’s health was worsening, while the government, under the eye of the president’s brother Said Bouteflika, insists all is well. Predictably, his blandly reassuring words have persuaded most Algerians that little is well, either with Bouteflika’s condition or Algeria’s future.
Though far from beloved, Bouteflika is at least familiar: a disciple of Houari Boumédiène, the military strongman who led the National Liberation Front and the Algerian government between 1965 and 1978, Bouteflika has been in office since 1999. He became president toward the end of the so-called “black decade,” when more than 200,000 civilians were killed in a vicious war between Islamic insurgents and government forces. In fact, Bouteflika’s decision to offer an amnesty to the rebels in 2000 ended the bloodletting and introduced a period of peaceful, if deceptive stability.
But Bouteflika has kept power in ways as dubious as those that first made him president 14 years ago, when several candidates, citing massive fraud, dropped out of the election. The existence of opposition parties and newspapers is, in effect, the price that systemic corruption within the ruling F.L.N. and the unquestioned dominance of the military pays to the virtue of republican ideals and civil society. While Algeria’s youth, harrowed by memories of the “black decade,” sat on the sidelines during the Arab Spring, they have not been spared the same economic and demographic plagues that spurred revolution elsewhere in North Africa. Unemployment among Algerians between the ages of 16 and 24 years old officially hovers around 22 percent, but the reality is no doubt even grimmer.
Thus the bitter irony of a recent demonstration in Algiers, where the protesters chanted and carried signs declaring: “Val-de-Grâce pour tous!” An editor for the independent Algiers newspaper L’Expression summed up the collective despair of those who gaze on the disparity between the few and many: “Val-de-Grâce for heads of state and coup de grâce for everyone else.”
Compounding the anger is shame: For his medical care, Bouteflika packed his bags and flew to Algeria’s former colonial master. That he had once compared France’s “civilizing mission” in Algeria to “genocide” worthy of the Nazis clearly did not change his high opinion of French medicine. In fact, not only is his life in the hands of French specialists, but so too is information about his whereabouts. A few days ago, the French Defense Ministry, not the Algerian government, disclosed that Bouteflika had moved to a Paris apartment for his convalescence. The announcement, declared one Algerian newspaper, was a “humiliation” for Algerians.
More importantly, the social divisions, economic distress, political corruption and public disenchantment simmering in Algeria have their parallels in the former colonial power. French youth, who also suffer from a high unemployment rate, have been spectators to a series of corruption cases that have spared neither conservatives nor Socialists. Public confidence in all political parties has reached new lows, and the belief that politicians are in the business of public affairs for private gain is widespread. Perhaps most humiliating, the French, no less sensitive than Algerians to their nation’s sovereignty, nevertheless find their economic life is in the hands of a former nemesis — situated this time not in Algiers, but in Berlin.
But at least François Hollande’s dealings with Bouteflika mark an improvement over the Algerian leader’s jagged ties with the conservative governments of Jacques Chirac and Nicolas Sarkozy. In 2005, the French Parliament’s effort to pass a law dictating that students be taught about the “positive role” of colonization sparked a storm in Algeria and prompted Bouteflika to denounce the “crimes” France committed in his country. Relations were patched up: Soon after Sarkozy paid a visit to Algeria while serving as Chirac’s interior minister, Bouteflika declared that the two countries were “condemned to a common future.” Yet neither Chirac nor Sarkozy ever acted on the longstanding Algerian demand that France officially apologize for colonial rule.
While Hollande also rejected the call for an official apology, he injected a series of notable confessions in official remarks during his state visit to Algeria in December. Not only did he refer to the French-led massacres of Algerian civilians that helped foment the war for independence, but also acknowledged the “suffering” caused by colonization. This was not just a far cry from the earlier conservative effort to revise French colonial history, but also a call, in Hollande’s phrase, to “open a new era.”
Yet, as Bouteflika’s shadowy presence in Paris reveals, this “new era” is the old era clothed in new rhetoric. The Socialist government’s overriding interest, especially with a shriveling economy and growing unemployment, is maintaining stable relations with a former colony that has become its largest market for imports as well as home to several hundred French corporations. Far more eloquent than French calls for greater transparency and democracy in Algeria was the presence in Hollande’s retinue last December of 40 French business leaders. With Val-de-Grâce turned into an annex of the French Foreign Ministry, it is clear that Bouteflika’s health is not only a concern of Algerians alone.
About the author: Robert Zaretsky is a professor of French history at the University of Houston Honors College, in Texas.