Algiers – President Emmanuel Macron starts a three-day visit on Thursday to Algeria to help mend ties with the former French colony, which this year marks its 60th anniversary of independence.
The first French president to be born after Algerian independence, Macron is hoping “to lay a foundation to rebuild and develop” a sometimes difficult relationship with the North African nation, his office said.
Accompanied by seven ministers, Macron will be met at the airport in the capital Algiers by President Abdelmadjid Tebboune at around 3:00 pm (1400 GMT).
The two heads of state will visit a monument to martyrs of the country’s war for independence, which ended more than 130 years of French colonial rule with Algeria’s independence in 1962.
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Franco-Algerian relations have seen repeated crises since then.
The French leader, on his second visit to Algeria since he took power in 2017, “has chosen to direct this visit towards the future, (focusing on) start-ups, innovation, youth, new sectors,” the Elysee said on Tuesday.
Macron, alongside a 90-strong delegation, will meet entrepreneurs in Algiers as well as young people in the second city Oran.
Ties between Paris and Algiers have been particularly stormy since last year, when Macron questioned Algeria’s existence as a nation before the French occupation and accused the government of fomenting “hatred towards France”.
Tebboune withdrew his country’s ambassador in response and banned French military aircraft from its airspace.
Better ties ‘a necessity’
But Macron’s office issued a statement saying he “regretted” the misunderstandings caused by his comments, and his aides believe that both sides have moved on.
They note the resumption of normal diplomatic relations and overflights to French army bases further south in Africa.
Analyst Mansour Kedidir said that “given instability in the Maghreb region, conflicts in the Sahel and the war in Ukraine, improving ties between France and Algeria is a political necessity”.
Macron and Tebboune will discuss the situation in Algeria’s southern neighbour Mali, as well as the growing regional clout of Russia, Algeria’s top arms supplier.
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France’s latest efforts to mend ties comes as Algeria moves to fill a vast shortfall in gas supplies to Europe following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
European nations are seeking to end their dependence on Russian hydrocarbons, giving Algeria – Africa’s biggest gas exporter with direct pipelines to Spain and Italy – renewed clout.
“The French president will certainly ask Algeria to make an effort to try to increase its gas production,” said Algerian economist Abderrahmane Mebtoul.
But Macron’s office has said that gas is not a major feature of the visit, and an advisor said the trip is “about being oriented towards the future”.
Macron has long ruled out issuing an apology for the highly sensitive issue of colonialism, but he has made a series of gestures aimed at healing past wounds.
In Algiers, few have much sympathy towards the French leader, who during his first election campaign in 2017 had described French colonialism as a “crime against humanity”.
“Before he was president, he used nice words, he visited (Algeria), but right after he went back to France, he changed,” said computer scientist Othmane Abdellouche, 62. “He used a totally different discourse”.
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French historians say half a million civilians and combatants died during Algeria’s bloody war for independence, 400,000 of them Algerian. The Algerian authorities say 1.5 million were killed.
Tebboune’s office said in October that over 5.6 million Algerians were killed during the colonial period.
Algerian rights groups have also urged Macron not to overlook human rights abuses by the government that came to power after long-time leader Abdelaziz Bouteflika stepped down in 2019.
Tebboune, a prime minister under Bouteflika, has clamped down on the Hirak opposition movement that forced his predecessor to resign.
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