PARIS/ALGIERS (Reuters) - French President Emmanuel Macron is likely to use a visit to Algeria on Wednesday to look to the future and turn the page on the colonial past, but stop short of apologizing for his country’s actions as some demand.
The trauma of the 1954-1962 independence war, in which hundreds of thousands of Algerians were killed and tortured was used on both sides, has left deep scars.
Former French leader Francois Hollande sought a more conciliatory tone describing his country’s colonization of Algeria as “brutal and unfair” and Macron is unlikely to go further.
With President Abdelaziz Bouteflika rarely seen in public since a 2013 stroke, Macron will focus on the generational shift and importance of enhanced economic and security within that context.
On a visit to Algeria in February as a candidate, Macron, 39, already shocked many at home when he said France’s 132-year colonial rule was a “crime against humanity.”
“The president had strong words. It was appreciated by Algerians, but today the idea is to turn the page and build a new relationship with Algeria,” a French presidential source said, adding that youth was his key message.
During a three-day tour in Africa last week Macron again addressed the colonial past. While recognizing the crimes of the European colonizers, he also pointed to the positives of the era and made clear that his generation should not be blamed.
Facing high unemployment, low oil prices, austerity and political uncertainty, Algeria’s youth is likely to warm to Macron’s call to look to the future more than the war veterans.
“It’s very difficult to have a relationship between one partner (Macron) that is young, vibrant and wants renewal and the other partner (Bouteflika) who represents such a severe contrast,” said Pierre Vermeren, a North Africa specialist at the Paris Sorbonne university.
Economic ties between the two countries have marginally progressed since 2012 and France is now behind China as the main partner. Annual trade stands at about 8 billion euros compared with 6.36 billion five years ago.
More than 400,000 Algerians are given visas for France annually, almost twice as many as in 2012.
“If Macron makes it easier to get a visa, that will be great for me. As for the history stuff I really don’t care,” said Slimane Khalifa, 25 who is an engineer at a state firm.
Political jostling around Bouteflika has intensified as his health has waned, fuelling questions about the transition if he steps down before his term ends in 2019.
With more than 4 million people of Algerian origin in France, all with ties to the North African state, any upheaval across the Mediterranean would have a serious impact on Paris.
“Macron’s biggest foreign policy test could be Algeria because the state of Bouteflika’s health is a worry and potentially what happens after could have huge ramifications on us,” said a French diplomat.
Macron’s “friendship” visit, downgraded from an official visit, is also an opportunity to appease some anger in Algiers after he traveled first to arch-rival Morocco earlier this year, a taboo for previous French leaders. Many hope Macron will go one step further when it comes to the past.
“France should not only apologize, but also pay for its crimes during occupation,” Lakhdar Brahimi, retired diplomat and close friend of the 80-year-old Bouteflika said last week.
Brahimi, like Bouteflika, belongs to the war veterans who fought against French occupation and among that generation Macron is seen as his last chance for history to remember Bouteflika as the man who obtained an official apology.
However, it remains a sensitive issue across France and Macron’s comments in February led to a drop in poll ratings and uproar across various strands of society forcing him to clarify his stance.
With the generational change yet to take place, Macron for now needs Algeria to help resolve the crisis in neighboring Libya and to prevent Islamist militants from stoking problems in the Sahel region, where some 4,000 French troops, roam close to the Algerian border.
“All the Algerians want is for France and the Barkhane force to get out of Mali and away from its border,” said a senior French diplomat.
Reporting by John Irish; Editing by Ulf Laessing and Matthew Mpoke Bigg