ALGIERS, Dec 3 (Reuters) - French President Nicolas Sarkozy arrived in Algeria on Monday to seal more than $5 billion in trade deals and seek to improve an uneasy relationship still overshadowed by controversy over France’s former colonial rule.
Recent hostile comments from Algerian officials about Sarkozy’s refusal to apologise for killings during the 132-year colonial period initially stirred fears the business-focused state visit could be scrapped.
But Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika told Sarkozy in a telephone call last week the statements did not express the Algerian position and he remained welcome to visit.
“The (visit’s) aim is to renew the exceptional partnership linking Algeria and France through concrete projects and initiatives that directly benefit both populations,” Sarkozy’s spokesman David Martinon said before the three-day trip.
The two sides are expected to sign trade and investment contracts worth more than $5 billion and a cooperation agreement on civil nuclear energy, French government officials said.
Algeria’s often strained political ties with France have little impact on extensive trade links that have made France the biggest investor in Algeria outside the gas and oil sector.
France had two-way trade with Algeria of more than $8 billion in 2006. In 2005, Algeria provided 16 percent of France’s natural gas supplies and 6 percent of its oil supplies. The colonial past is a sensitive subject for the current Algerian leadership, most of whom took part in the revolutionary struggle against France.
France invaded Algeria in 1830 and a century later was host to more than 1 million French settlers.
A war begun in 1954 by Algerian fighters cost hundreds of thousands of lives — Algiers says 1.5 million — before independence in 1962.
Sarkozy has defended his refusal to apologise, saying leaders should focus on the future, but Algerian leaders are adamant that deep ties with Paris, including a friendship agreement, depend on French efforts to address concerns over the past.
The latest spat erupted when an Algerian minister said a relationship of equals was not possible with Sarkozy because he refused to apologise for the past and that the French leader had been elected thanks to a “Jewish lobby” — an indirect reference to Sarkozy’s Jewish mother and a widespread belief in Algeria that he is backed by Jewish groups in France. (Reporting by Hamid Ould Ahmed; Editing by Caroline Drees)