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It has become expected of French presidents that they visit Algeria, though in spite of the rhetoric, these visits have often proven disappointing. Since independence 50 years ago, all François Hollande’s predecessors except Pompidou have gone.
Mitterrand set out to improve relations with the former colony. The Islamic Salvation Front and a pitiless civil war ended that in 1992. Chirac’s offer of friendship soured when a French law extolled the colonial history as beneficial. In 2007, Sarkozy recognised past injustices but, like Hollande, didn’t apologise.
Hollande said: “I’m not here to re-open old wounds. I’m here so we can build a new house together. It is the future that is important. This visit is based on the future.”
Hollande the page-turner is the French idea, preferably without saying “sorry”. France lost 27,000 soldiers in its 1954 to 1962 war to keep Algeria, compared to the as many as 400,000 Algerian deaths. This has poisoned relations between the two peoples since then.
While a plaque next to the River Seine doesn’t put a number on those killed by Paris police there in 1961, a massacre of Algerian peaceful demonstrators then was a bloody repression, Hollande acknowledged this October.
But in the capital Algiers, although Hollande called for an equal partnership between the two states, he said he had not come “to repent” but to tell the truth. He also said he wants to make back and forth travel easier for Algerians and French people.
Algeria has 12 billion barrels of oil reserves but annual trade with France is just 10 billion euros. Paris clearly has this in the eye, as the Algerians have more and more opportunities to do business with other countries, notably Spain, Italy and China.
Three quarters of the people are under age 40. They hold out the most hope that the latest rhetoric will finally translate into tangible results.