Official French visit to Algeria aims to stimulate economic and trade links


France and Algeria will take a symbolic step towards mending their long-strained relationship today when President François Hollande visits the north African country 50 years after it won independence from France.

The trauma of the 1954-1962 Algerian war, in which hundreds of thousands were killed, left deep scars in both countries and has held back attempts to revive the Mediterranean region.

The official focus of the two-day visit, the first by a French president to Algeria since 2007, will be on improving economic links between the two countries, but Mr Hollande’s words will be parsed for gestures aimed at healing old wounds.

Efforts by Mr Hollande’s predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy, to normalise relations with Algeria were undone by mutual distrust and by his tough rhetoric on immigration – seen by many as stigmatising France’s five million Muslims, many of whom are of Algerian origin.

Turning the page

During his campaign, Mr Hollande said it was time to turn the page on France’s 132-year Algerian colonial history, although he stopped short of promising the formal apology many in Algeria want to hear.

The socialist is also seen as having an affinity with Algeria. In the debate that polarised France after the Algerian war, he came of political age, spent eight months working at the French embassy there in 1970 and has regularly returned.

A formal apology for colonial-era actions in Algeria is a sensitive issue for Paris, however, as many French citizens who lived there prior to independence – known as pieds noirs – oppose the idea, as do former loyalist Muslim volunteers known as harkis. In an open letter during his campaign, Mr Hollande promised neither “amnesia nor repentance”.

The large French travelling party will include nine ministers, historians and prominent Franco-Algerian personalities. There will be over 40 business executives, a sign of French eagerness to build stronger links. Algeria has emerged as a significant power, with 12 billion barrels of oil reserves at its disposal, yet annual trade with France is just €10 billion. Countries such as China, Spain and Italy have eroded France’s economic presence there.

Among the deals expected is a plan by Renault to open a new plant to produce cars for the domestic Algerian market.

An agreement will also be signed to ease visa requirements for Algerians travelling to France. Paris issues about 200,000 visas a year, compared to 1,000 in 1999, the nadir of bilateral ties.

It is expected that Paris and Algiers will ratify an agreement that would allow French defence contractors to bid for major arms deals. That should improve intelligence co-operation as international efforts to oust al-Qaeda-linked Islamists from Mali gain momentum.