France is paying close attention to the anti-government protests in its former colony, but it is for Algerians to choose their leaders and future, Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said on Wednesday. Mr Le Drian told MPs: “We must let the electoral process unfold. “France, obviously, because of our historical links …, is very attentive to the unfolding of this major event.
“Algeria is a sovereign country and it is up to the Algerian people, and them alone, to choose their leaders and their future, it is up to the Algerian people to define their aspirations, which implies transparency and the freedom of the [electoral] process.”
The diplomacy chief also called on demonstrations there to remain peaceful. Algeria is a “key country in Africa and in the Mediterranean … this is why the stability, security and development of Algeria are absolutely essential”.
Tens of thousands of people have taken to the streets nationwide in the biggest protests since the 2011 Arab Spring revolution, calling on President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, 82, not to seek a fifth term in an election scheduled for April 18.
But Mr Bouteflika – who suffered a stroke in 2013 and has not spoken in public since – did not pay heed to the calls, submitting his registration papers on Sunday.
France is home to more than four million people of Algerian descent. An uprising in the North African country, which gained independence from France in 1962 after a brutal eight-year war, would have a serious impact there.
Paris has largely refrained from commenting on the wave of protests, fearful of being accused of meddling by Algerian officials or of not doing enough to support protesters seeking a peaceful political transition in the country, diplomatic sources said.
A French diplomatic source told Reuters: “We don’t know what’s going on. It’s absolutely explosive and anything we say could light a fuse. We have to remain very cautious.”
French officials also fear scores of refugees or illegal immigrants could flee to France if the situation degenerates and slips into chaos, as well as a security crisis in a region already burdened by Islamic terrorism.
Protesters have applauded the military, which has stayed in barracks throughout the growing unrest.
But analysts and former officials told Reuters generals would step in if the demonstrations lead to instability in one of Africa’s biggest oil producers.
The political turmoil poses the biggest challenge yet to Mr Bouteflika and his inner circle, which includes members of the armed forces, intelligence services and businessmen.
Earlier this week, Algerian war veterans said the protesters urging their ailing leader to step down after 20 years in office had legitimate concerns and called on all citizens to demonstrate.
On Thursday, however, Mr Bouteflika issued an ominous warning to protesters, saying the rallies could be hijacked by “misleading parties” bent on provoking chaos.
“Breaking this peaceful expression by any treacherous internal or foreign group may lead to sedition and chaos and resulting crises and woes,” Mr Bouteflika wrote in a letter published by the Algeria Press Service (APS).
He did not say who any of these groups might be.
A bloody Islamist rebellion in the 1990s that erupted after the army blocked an Islamist party from taking power was quashed at the cost of up to 200,000 lives.
The position taken by the military and security forces in the coming days or weeks will be key to how the current crisis unfolds.