French President François Hollande started a two-day trip to Algeria on Wednesday. He hopes to sign business deals, including the construction of a Renault factory at Oran, but the shadow of 132 years of colonisation hangs over the visit.
Hollande is accompanied by a massive 200-strong delegation that includes nine ministers, about 30 company bosses, about 100 journalists and Kad Merad, an Algerian-born actor who is extremely popular in France.
He will meet Presient Abdelaziz Bouteflika and address the Algerian parliament and university students.
His predecessors Jacques Chirac and Nicolas Sarkozy visited Algeria in 2003 and 2004 for the former and 2007 for the latter. They were both well received but subsequent political action in France soured relations.
They both related to the colonial past:
- In 2005 members of the then-ruling UMP tried to oblige French school textbooks to recognise the "positive role" of colonisation;
- In 2007 Sarkozy went on to court the harkis, Algerians who collaborated with the French occupiers who are regarded as traitors by Algeria's ruling National Liberation Front (FLN).
The French president has so far enjoyed a good press in Algeria for two main reasons:
- Shortly after being elected, he condemned the "bloody repression" of an Algerian nationalist demonstration in Paris in 1961.
- When he was a student at the top French bureaucrats' school, Ena, in 1978, he did an internship in Algeria for several months.
But, inevitably, this visit must tackle more ambitious tasks:
- "Seven or eight" accords, relating to defence, industry, agriculture, culture, education and training are to be signed, according to Algerian Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal, notably a partnership carmaker Renault to build a factory near Oran capable of turning out 25,000-75,000 cars a year;
- Gain Algiers's unqualified support for an internationally backed west African intervention in northern Mali, where Al Qaida-linked Islamists have taken control;
- Encourage educational exchanges in a speech to students at the University of Tlemcen;
- Convince the Algerians that "recognition" that France's 1830-1962 colonial rule of Algeria, which finished with a bloody independence war, was "tragic" is sufficient and that an apology is not necessary, while offending the smallest number of French voters.
While the French and Algerian governments, not to mention the entrepreneurs, clearly want to get on with business, the past is still an obstacle to the "exceptional partnership" Algiers says it favours.
The FLN, which has ruled Algeria since independence, is often accused of corruption and nepotism and derives what little authority it still has from its historic role at the head of the independence struggle.
So it must demand a degree of contrition for the massacres, torture and repression - not to mention the occupation - that accompanied colonisation and, when political times get tough, is ready to work up a head of post-colonial indignation to try to restore its credentials.
The president of Hollande's Socialist Party, Elisabeth Guigou, on Wednesday indicated that there will be no apology but there will be "recognition ... of a history that was tragic".
Before Hollande's visit had even started, Algeria's Islamist opposition had already decided that whatever he would say would not be enough and announced that they would boycott his speech to parliament.
They want "repentance" and "compensation for the victims of colonisation" and issued a statement condemning the presence of some harkis and pieds noirs (French citizens who left Algeria at independence) on the French delegation.
In France the UMP, now in opposition, will inevitably criticise whatever Hollande chooses to say.
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"The happy medium is first to stop seeing the relationship between France and Algeria through the prism of the past," the right-wing party's president, Jean-François Copé, declared on Wednesday.
He went on to criticise Hollande's statement on the 1961 killings for being too short and distributed by fax, "and all that just to explain that this was a contribution to the success of his trip to Algeria".
Copé, whose mother was born in Algeria, knows that any concession to the Algerian point of view will anger a number of the pieds noirs now living in France, as well as many of the Algerian Jews who fled after independence, not to mention right-wing French nationalists who have not yet come to terms with the end of empire.