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Tuesday, 13 February, 2001, 18:56 GMT
Algeria and France: A tense relationship
Algerian soldiers covering victims of the weekend massacre
Violence continues despite a reconciliation programme
By Heba Saleh

The visit of the French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine comes at a sensitive time in Algeria.

The last two months have witnessed yet another resurgence of violence. Massacres have returned to haunt the countryside, and the much-vaunted "Civil Concorde" initiative of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika appears to be in tatters.

Soldiers in Algeria
Algeria has recently seen a resurgence of violence
The coming of Mr Bouteflika to office in 1999 marked a shift in Algeria's international standing. He promised peace, and Algeria's western partners, including France, breathed a sigh of relief.

Even if the Civil Concorde initiative was limited in scope - and it was clear that Mr Bouteflika was put in his position by the army - Algeria's image changed and its diplomatic isolation ended.

Improved relations

Last year, Mr Bouteflika was received in Paris with all the pomp and ceremony reserved for the country's most distinguished visitors.

As the former colonial power in Algeria and its closest western partner, France leads European Union policy towards Algeria. Its approval seemed to set the seal on the improvement in the country's international standing.

But all this is looking somewhat shaky now.

Political and business factions in both countries often seem to be pulling in opposing directions

A group of distinguished French and Algerian intellectuals have just urged France to distance itself from the military-backed authorities in Algiers.

They say that French policy amounts to complicity in crimes against humanity, and they chastise France for supporting a regime which they describe as determined to silence its opponents, even by killing them.

They cite an Algerian army officer, Habib Souaidia, who has just published a book in France describing the army's involvement in massacres and torture. They also revive calls for an international commission of inquiry into the violence in Algeria.

Such calls can only put pressure on relations between the two countries. The French Foreign Ministry has only said that France would discuss the calls for an inquiry with its European partners.

But European diplomats say that France has always blocked attempts to scrutinise human rights in Algeria.

Civil war

Relations between France and Algeria have never been simple. They have been shaped by memories of the brutal war which led to Algeria's independence from France in 1962, and the subsequent exodus of French settlers.

French soldiers in Algiers during the war
There are also hundreds of thousands of Algerians who live and work in France but maintain strong links to their country.

French is the dominant language in Algeria and the country's elite looks to Paris as a cultural reference point. Added to all this, France is Algeria's key economic partner.

But political and business factions and lobbies in both countries often seem to be pulling in opposing directions.

The violence in Algeria strained this already fraught relationship. There was resentment when it became more difficult for Algerians to obtain French visas, and Air France stopped its flights to the country after a hijacking.

Statements by French officials were slammed by Algiers as interference in its affairs. But throughout, Paris has supported the military backed authorities by pleading Algeria's case with international lending institutions and shielding it from criticism on its human rights record.

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See also:

13 Feb 01 | Middle East
France hails ties with Algeria
12 Feb 01 | Middle East
Algerian massacre: 26 dead
20 Jan 01 | Middle East
Algerian president under pressure
04 Jan 01 | Middle East
Algerian violence flares
07 Dec 00 | Middle East
Timeline: Algeria
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