French President Francois Hollande called France’s 132-year colonial rule in Algeria “brutal and unjust,” stopping short of an outright apology, as he seeks to improve relations that have been troubled ever since the North African country won its independence 50 years ago.
Citing France’s postwar reconciliation with Germany, Hollande told Algeria’s parliament during a two-day visit that he wants “a new age in relations” based on “recognition of the truth.”
Hollande is the third French president to struggle how to frame relations with Algeria since the country’s president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, demanded in 2003 that France apologize for its “long, brutal and genocidal” rule. Bouteflika and other Algerian leaders have lately backed off those demands, and Hollande has already taken some steps toward Algeria, such as this year being the first French president to recognize the killings of 100 Algerian protesters in Paris in 1961.
Bouteflika hasn’t spoken on the matter during Hollande’s trip. In a Dec. 11 interview with Agence France-Presse, he dropped his inflammatory rhetoric, saying he wants a “dynamic and strong relation with France, based on the density of our ties and the numerous interests that link our countries.”
A recognition of abuses that took place during French rule without a formal apology would satisfy most Algerians, said Kader Abderrahim, a researcher at the Paris-based Institute of International and Strategic Studies.
“Algerian powers make cynical use of the whole issue to manipulate public opinion,” Abderrahim said before Hollande’s trip. “But most Algerians just want to turn the page.”
Interviews with Algerians lined up to welcome Hollande yesterday as he walked the Algiers waterfront showed a variety of opinions. “It’s very important for the dignity of the Algerian people that he apologize,” said Hassan Taibi, an 18- year-old student, adding that easier visa requirements to visit France is more important to many young people.
Ali Medjaoui, 64-year-old civil servant who was 14 when the French left, said: “We want to turn the page, but we won’t forget. We want an equal partnership. We are not bitter, we don’t demand apologies, we just need to remember.”
Adouan Benkrama, a 42-year-old unemployed man, said he didn’t care about history; he wanted a job. “We need to forget the past, what we need is more investment,” he said. “With all this oil wealth, it shouldn’t be so difficult to get a job.”
About 700,000 of the 1 million Europeans who left Algeria when it won independence in 1962 settled in France. The same number of Algerians live in France now, Hollande said. France doesn’t allow official statistics based on ethnicity, making it impossible to know how many French citizens are of Algerian descent.
“Except for possibly Israel, there is no country in the world that has such complicated relations with France as Algeria,” Abderrahim said. Algeria was settled by the French from 1830 and, unlike other African colonies, was officially part of France until its 1962 independence.
Europeans never amounted to more than 15 percent of the population. Christians and Jews received French citizenship in 1871. Muslims didn’t. While they got the vote in 1944, districts were designed to ensure they never outvoted the Europeans.
The war for independence began in 1954, and the French army largely crushed the rebels by 1958. Civilian massacres and the use of torture undercut support for the war in France, resulting in General Charles de Gaulle’s decision to begin secret talks with independence leaders.
In his speech to the Algerian parliament today, Hollande mentioned torture and specific massacres, bringing applause.
“Nothing can be built on dissimulation, forgetting or, worse, denial,” he said. “The question is simple and serious: can we build together a new page in our history? I hope and I think we can, but it must have a foundation, and that foundation is truth.”
Benjamin Stora, a French historian, estimates that 500,000 Algerians were killed in the eight-year war. French official statistics in 1962 said 243,000 died while Algeria puts the figure at 1 million “martyrs.” About 7,000 French settlers were killed or kidnapped, and the French military lost 27,500 men.
Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal suggested in a Dec. 18 interview on France3 television that Algeria would no longer demand an apology. “All Algerians are proud of their War of Liberation, but we are in a new historical phase,” he said. “We must recall our past, that is clear, but what’s essential is to build our future.”
A long-planned friendship treaty between the countries was scuttled in 2003 after then-President Jacques Chirac rebuffed Bouteflika’s demands for an apology. During a visit to Algiers in November 2006 as interior minister and the next year as president, Nicolas Sarkozy said he couldn’t “ask children to apologize for the faults of their fathers.”
Hollande and Bouteflika yesterday signed a friendship and partnership “declaration” calling for greater cooperation in economics, agriculture and defense.
France and Algeria “can do better” on their economic exchanges, Hollande said. France is Algeria’s largest provider of imports and the third-biggest buyer of its exports, he said. Renault SA yesterday signed an agreement to build a factory in Algeria that will export cars to neighboring countries.
Hollande also told parliament he would take steps to speed up delivery of visas. About 200,000 French visas a year are delivered to Algerians, the most of any country after Russia, French officials say. But 20 percent are rejected, the most of any country.
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