France seeks to set Algerian remembrance date

PARIS Thu Oct 25, 2012 6:12am EDT

PARIS (Reuters) - France will try again on Thursday to fix an annual day of remembrance for those who died in the 1954-62 Algerian war and independence struggles in Morocco and Tunisia that ended more than a century of French colonial rule.

The Senate is to vote on the bill, which has gathered dust for 10 years, to set the memorial date. This could be another step towards warmer relations with Algiers as Paris seeks its backing for an African-led military intervention against Islamist militants in northern Mali.

Although the motion aims to settle a spat over the most appropriate date to remember hundreds of thousands of dead on both sides, it may also be seen as a gesture of reconciliation before a planned visit by President Francois Hollande to Algiers in December.

"It is of the utmost importance for us. We've been fighting for this for 50 years," said Guy Darmanin, head of a federation of war veterans who fought in Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco.

"Inside France it may be controversial, but as far as relations with Algeria go, it should only improve them."

A draft law to mark the March 19, 1962 ceasefire as a day of remembrance was approved in the National Assembly in 2002 but then set aside after opponents, mainly on the right, said it would stir old hatreds and insult colonials who had to flee.

A decade on, 50 years after the war in Algeria ended and with the left now in power in France, Socialist senators have dug up the bill and submitted it for a vote in the upper house.

The Socialists have had a majority in the Senate since late last year and a vote in favor will take the proposal into law, given backing from the lower house 10 years ago.

Opponents have suggested alternative dates in October or December to mark the end of the Algerian war to allow for the fact that months of bloodshed followed the March 19 peace accord signed in the French town of Evian.

Some said in 2002 that March 19 represented defeat and the loss of French Algeria - comments that if repeated today would embarrass Hollande just as many Algerians hope he may use his December trip to deliver a long-awaited apology for the past.

Hollande has a personal affinity with Algeria, having worked at the French embassy there in 1978. He now needs its support as he pushes for an African-led operation to quash what he sees as a growing threat from al Qaeda-linked militants in Mali.

A strategic regional power, Algeria is not opposing United Nations Security Council attempts to forge an action plan but is concerned about spillover from unrest in its southern neighbor.

In another highly symbolic gesture, Hollande acknowledged last week that Algerians had been massacred at a rally for independence in Paris in 1961, ending decades of official silence over the bloody crackdown. Historians say more than 200 people may have been killed in the police action.

French-Algerian relations were badly scarred by an eight-year conflict often likened to the U.S. war in Vietnam as it triggered violent protests at home and led to the fall of a government before France withdrew in 1962.

The conflict divided French society and it was not until 1999 that the government recognized it as a war rather than a civil uprising.

(Additional reporting by Emile Picy; Editing by Alistair Lyon)

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