France sets remembrance date for Algerian war victims

PARIS Thu Nov 8, 2012 3:03pm EST

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PARIS (Reuters) - France on Thursday set March 19 as the annual date of remembrance for victims of the 1954-62 Algerian war, in a diplomatic gesture to Algeria before a visit by President Francois Hollande next month.

The Senate upper house of parliament approved the date in a vote that ended years of disagreement over when to mark the conflict that ended more than a century of French colonial rule in Algeria and left deep scars on both sides.

Hollande, who has sought to improve relations with Algeria since his May election, hopes to use his visit in late December to persuade the country to back an African-led military intervention against Islamic militants in northern Mali.

The Senate, controlled by the ruling Socialist Party, voted by 181 votes to 155 in favor of a bill to use the date of the March 19, 1962 ceasefire to remember hundreds of thousands of dead on both sides in Algeria, and also in parallel Moroccan and Tunisian independence struggles.

"The descendents of this conflict deserved a historic and symbolic date," said Socialist Senator Alain Neri, who submitted the long-buried legislation for the upper house vote.

The bill was approved in the lower house National Assembly in 2002 but was then shelved for a decade as opponents argued March 19 was the wrong date to use as it marked France's defeat and could stir up old hatreds.

Months of bloodshed followed the March 19 peace accord signed in the French town of Evian as waves of North African-born Europeans known as "pieds noirs" were repatriated.

Opponents had suggested less controversial dates in October or December be used as an alternative for remembrance.

The fixing of a remembrance day, exactly 50 years after the war ended, is symbolic, but groups representing relatives of victims of the war have said it will not fulfill their desire for a full apology for France's colonial past.

An apology is a sensitive issue for France as many "pieds noirs" and Muslim "harkis", who fought in the French army against Algerian insurgents, oppose the idea.

Hollande last month became the first French president to acknowledge Algerians were massacred at an independence rally in Paris in 1961, ending decades of silence over a police crackdown historians say may have killed more than 200 people.

Paris fears Islamist militants who seized control of large parts of northern Mali this year could use the West African country as a base to launch attacks on French soil.

Algiers, which is also concerned the crisis in neighboring Mali could push al Qaeda militants into its territory, has already given its tacit approval for an African-led intervention as a last resort.

(Reporting by Emile Picy; Writing by Catherine Bremer; Editing by Andrew Heavens)

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