Hollande heads for Algeria on mission to heal and seal ties

16th December 2012, Comments 0 comments

President Francois Hollande travels to Algeria this week on a symbolic trip seeking to end simmering resentment over French colonial rule and to persuade its leaders to back an armed intervention to oust Islamists in Mali.

But he faces an uphill battle on both counts during the two-day state visit that comes as the resource-rich north African state marks 50 years of independence.

Hollande will have a dozen government ministers in tow when he arrives Wednesday to hold meetings with Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, make a speech in parliament and give a talk at a university in the city of Tlemcen.

"We hope that the visit of Francois Hollande will mark a new stage in our bilateral relations which are expected to deepen," Bouteflika told AFP in an interview last week.

Officials in Paris have also been talking up the trip, dubbing it a "historic" moment in relations that remain thorny half a century after a bloody war of independence ended 132 years of French colonisation.

The two states are bound together by a network of human, economic and cultural ties, with more than half a million Algerians living in France and hundreds of thousands of others holding French nationality.

Algeria is an important supplier of oil to France, hundreds of French businesses operate there, and France is its top trade partner. The north African state is also a strategic partner in France's fight against Islamic extremists.

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Algeria wants France to make official act of repentance

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But the past still casts a long shadow over France's links with Algeria.

Efforts to draw up a "Treaty of Friendship" in recent years have failed, mostly because Algeria insists France must first make an act of official repentance for the torture and massacres its troops carried out in colonial days.

Bouteflika said after Hollande's election victory -- over Nicolas Sarkozy -- in May that "only an objective reading of history" would allow France and Algeria to overcome the "painful" legacy of the past.

Last month his government made a fresh demand for France to admit its massacres, while the country's foreign minister said he hoped Hollande would deliver "the clarifications the Algerian people are waiting for".

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 he is unlikely to go much further during his trip to Algeria.

"History must serve to build the future and not to prevent it," he said last month. His aides say that he is prepared to take a lucid look at the past but is not going to take the road of official repentance.

The second major issue Hollande will tackle during the Algeria trip is Mali.

The west African regional bloc ECOWAS wants to deploy a 3,300-strong intervention force to drive out Islamists who have seized half the country. The bloc is being backed by Western powers who fear the zone could become a haven for terrorists.

Algeria, the regional powerhouse which shares hundreds of kilometres (miles) of border with Mali, is seen as key to any military operation but has long adhered to a policy of non-interference in the internal affairs of another state.

It did not oppose a UN resolution authorising the possible military intervention if dialogue fails, but Bouteflika said he favoured a "negotiated political solution between the Malian government and rebels who clearly distance themselves from terrorist and criminal activity."

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© 2012 AFP

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