By Lamine Chikhi
ALGIERS (Reuters) – President Emmanuel Macron visited Algeria on Wednesday where he pressed for a new chapter in relations and said he would not be held hostage by France’s colonial past, in remarks published by a local newspaper.
The French leader is in the capital Algiers for talks with President Abdelaziz Bouteflika and senior officials as he looks to bolster social and trade ties between the countries.
It is a relationship scarred by the trauma of the 1954-1962 independence war, during which hundreds of thousands of Algerians were killed and torture was used on both sides.
Bouteflika, 80, belongs to the war veterans who fought against French occupation and has been in ill-health since suffering a stroke in 2013. Macron is widely seen as his last chance of obtaining an official apology for the past.
But the French leader is unlikely to go any further than his predecessor, Francois Hollande, who sought a more conciliatory tone and described his country’s colonization of Algeria as “brutal and unfair”, but stopped short of apologising.
“I know the history, but I am not a hostage of the past. We have a shared memory and we need to accept that, but I want, out of respect for our history, to turn to the future,” Macron told El Watan newspaper.
Bouteflika is rarely seen in public since his stroke and Macron will focus on Algeria’s generational shift and the importance of enhanced economic and security within that context.
Economic ties between the two countries have marginally progressed since 2012 and France is now behind China as the main partner. Annual trade stands at about 8 billion euros compared with 6.36 billion five years ago.
More than 400,000 Algerians are given visas for France annually, almost twice as many as in 2012.
While walking through downtown Algiers near the university on Wednesday, young Algerians came out in force, calling out: “Visas, Please!
Some others called out: “Go home! We don’t want you here.”
Franco-Algerian relations are a sensitive subject in France. Macron angered many at home when he described France’s colonial rule as a “crime against humanity” on a visit to Algeria during his presidential campaign.
“The new relationship that I want to build with Algeria and that I propose to Algerians is to build an equal partnership, built on frankness, reciprocity and ambition,” he told the paper.
Some Algerians disagreed. “Excuse me but France will have to apologise for the martyrs we lost,” said a woman who gave her name as Nadia.
During a three-day tour in West Africa last week Macron, 39, also addressed France’s colonial past. While recognising the crimes of the European colonizers, he also highlighted positives from the era and made clear his generation should not be blamed.
Facing high unemployment, low oil prices, austerity and political uncertainty, Algeria’s youth is likely to warm to Macron’s call to look to the future more than the war veterans.
“I am from a generation of French for whom the crimes committed by European colonizers are irrefutable and are part of our history … but I am also from a generation that did not know this period,” Macron said. “Our responsibility is not to dwell in the past.”
(Writing by John Irish in Paris; Editing by Richard Lough and Richard Balmforth)