by Beatrice Khadige
by Beatrice Khadige
ALGIERS, Dec 19, 2012 (AFP)
Francois Hollande headed to Algeria on Wednesday for his first trip as president, seeking to end simmering resentment
over French colonial rule and bolster ties with the OPEC oil producer.
Hollande’s trip to the former French territory comes after a period of lukewarm ties under his predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy, in the year that Algeria celebrates 50 years of independence, and with the French economy struggling.
French-language newspaper El-Watan, in an editorial on Wednesday, called for French recognition of “the colonial past and crimes of colonisation,” saying such a move would “soothe memories that are still painful.”
But there are high hopes in both countries that the two-day visit will mark a “new stage” after Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika called last week for “a strong and dynamic relationship with France.”
Due to arrive at 1200 GMT, Hollande is accompanied by some 200 people, including nine ministers and dozens of senior business executives.
“It reflects the political, but also the symbolic and economic importance, that the president attaches to this visit,” Hollande spokesman Romain Nadal said on the eve of the trip.
Hollande and Bouteflika are due to sign a “joint declaration” — one of numerous planned accords, including in the defence, industry and agricultural fields — which is expected to pave the way for extensive future cooperation.
Projects likely to benefit include the construction of a factory by vehicle-manufacturer Renault — which has said it will sign the agreement on Wednesday — the operations of French cement group Lafarge and the teaching of French in Algerian schools.
The two states are bound together by human, economic and cultural ties, with more than half a million Algerians living in France, and hundreds of thousands of others holding French nationality.
A poll published by Algerian daily Liberte said 57 percent of Algerians were in favour of a special relationship with France.
But many remain frustrated at not being able to obtain French visas.
Algeria is an important supplier of oil to France and France is its top trade partner, while for Paris, Algiers is a key partner in the fight against armed Islamists in the Sahel.
But France’s presence in the Algerian market has met stiff competition, particularly from China, Italy and the United States.
The past also still casts a long shadow over France’s links with its former colony.
Ahead of Hollande’s visit, political parties, including four Islamist groupings, denounced “the refusal of the French authorities to recognise, apologise and compensate, materially and morally, the crimes committed by
colonial France in Algeria.”
They accused their own government of “indulgence” for not insisting on it.
Hollande in October recognised the “bloody repression” of Algerian protesters by police in Paris in October 1961, which historians say killed dozens, possibly hundreds, but analysts said he was unlikely to go much further during his visit.
His aides said he was prepared to take a lucid look at the past, while not taking the road of official repentance, an issue that is likely to arise on Thursday when he addresses the Algerian parliament.
Human rights groups have urged Hollande to press the Algerian authorities on their rights record, charging that it has actually deteriorated since an April 2011 promise of reform.
The Arab Spring uprisings of last year began in neighbouring Tunisia but Algeria has been largely spared the upheaval amid a legacy of public war-weariness from the devastating conflict with Islamist militants that rocked the country in the 1990s.