French president looks to future in Algeria visit

Dec 19, 2012, 10:18 AM EST
French President Francois Hollande (L) and Algeria's President Abdelaziz Bouteflika (2nd L) wave to the crowd from a car in Algiers on December 19, 2012.
AFP/Getty Images

ALGIERS, Algeria (AP) — French President Francois Hollande arrived Wednesday on a state visit to Algeria, hoping for a clean start in relations after a half-century of tensions with this North Africa nation, once the French empire's most prized colony.

Schoolchildren lined the sidewalks of the port city of Algiers, the country's capital, as Hollande and President Abdelaziz Bouteflika drove by in a staged welcome.

The two-day visit by the Socialist president comes as Algeria celebrates 50 years since its independence from France after a brutal seven-year war — and 132 years of colonial rule.

But Hollande's trip aims to look forward toward an era marked by mutually prosperous economic ties rather than strained by the burden of a bitterly remembered past. President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, 75, also wants a forward-looking spin to mark the trip. A ride in a convertible by the two leaders down one of the capital's main avenues will kick off the visit.

"This will be a trip turned toward the future," France's foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, said in a television interview on Sunday. Fabius is part of the large French delegation traveling to Algiers and to Tlemcen, a city rich in culture in the northwest.

France and Algeria need each other for economic and strategic reasons and are inextricably bound by their past, and by the millions of Algerians living in France. The port city of Algiers, the capital, is a living memory to colonial days, through the French architectural styles lining the streets. The gas-rich OPEC nation is also a land of promise for French industry. France is Algeria's No. 1 trade partner but Algeria is only fourth on France's list.

One much-awaited announcement during Hollande's visit is the installation of a factory for Renault cars in Oran, west of Algiers, with the vehicles destined only for Algeria and other African nations.

About 15 business contracts are to be signed during the visit, French diplomatic officials have said without providing details.

As important for the years ahead is a common statement to be issued by Hollande and Bouteflika. What it contains remains under wraps, and the subject of intense diplomatic discussions in recent months. A planned friendship treaty to be signed under French President Jacques Chirac, who left office in 2007, never got off the drawing board due to enmities.

The past is likely to keep haunting the present. A clutch of Algerian political parties — Islamists and nationalists — are demanding that France apologize for its "colonial crimes" as a condition for stepping up bilateral ties. Bouteflika, an often inscrutable president in office since 1999, has been among those who have called on France to make amends.

One Islamist party, El Islah, says its eight lawmakers will boycott Hollande's speech Thursday morning to the two houses of parliament.

The French president has already made an abrupt departure from the playbook. He broke the official French silence over the massacre of Algerians by French police during a pro-independence demonstration in Paris in 1961. Some bodies were found floating in the Seine River in what Hollande acknowledged was a "bloody repression," paying homage to the victims of "this tragedy."

"The Republic recognizes these acts with clarity," Hollande said, 51 years after an event for which an official death toll has never emerged. He was chastised for the statement by political foes on the French right.

Algerian Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal expressed the official wish of his country to move forward without ignoring the past.

"We cannot forget our past. All Algerians are proud of their past, of the war of national liberation .... (but) we now embark on a new, historic phase," he said on France-3 TV on Monday night.

Algeria, which has fought an Islamist insurgency for well over a decade, has also been an important partner for France and other western nations in the war on terrorism. Among topics on Hollande's agenda is the situation in Mali, to Algeria's south. A branch of Algeria-based al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb and other radical Islamists control the north of that country.

France has led a plan for an intervention by African forces to recapture northern Mali, with logistical help from the West. French diplomatic officials say there is consensus with Algeria on the need for military action — but also reluctance by Algeria, which shares a long, hard-to-police desert border with Mali and could be swept too deeply into the fray.


Ganley reported from Paris. Sylvie Corbet in Paris contributed to this report.