Algeria accuses French paper of ‘gratuitously’ damaging Bouteflika image

Friday 08/04/2016
Row threatens to overshadow economic agreements

ALGIERS - Algeria accused Le Monde newspaper Sunday of "gratuitously" damaging its president's image, as French Prime Minister Manuel Valls sought to resolve a row that threatens to overshadow key trade deals.

France and Algeria signed several economic agreements during Valls' two-day visit that saw him meet President Abdelaziz Bouteflika for talks on the fight against extremism and the chaos in neighbouring Libya.

But the premier's trip has been dogged by a dispute related to Le Monde's coverage of the leak of millions of financial records from a Panamanian law firm that prompted Algeria to deny visas to two French journalists.

The paper on Tuesday published a front-page photo of Bouteflika before later clarifying that his name does not appear in the so-called Panama Papers, which have shed light on the financial activities of the world's wealthy elite.

In response, Algiers summoned France's ambassador to complain about a "hostile campaign".

Valls' counterpart Abdelmalek Sellal said Sunday that Le Monde had "gratuitously... undermined the prestige and honour" of Bouteflika.

The row has seen Algeria refuse the visa applications of a Le Monde journalist and a reporter from the Canal+ show Le Petit Journal who were meant to cover Valls' visit, prompting several French media outlets to boycott the trip in protest.

It was not immediately clear why Algeria refused to grant a visa to Le Petit Journal, but the satirical show has frequently reported on the health of 78-year-old Bouteflika.

Valls spoke to Sellal earlier in the week to try to get the ban lifted, but without success, a source close to the French premier had said.

On Sunday, the French prime minister tried to draw a line under the controversy by saying Algeria and France needed to "look towards the future".

"We want to express our deep disagreement and our emotion over this decision... which seeks to punish the media," Valls said after meeting Sellal.

France has a close relationship with its former colony but has in recent years lost out to China as Algeria's main commercial partner.

Among several agreements signed Sunday was the expansion of a railway equipment factory in Algeria owned by French firm Alstom.

"This economic partnership needs to continue to develop," Valls told reporters in Algiers. "This means France must remain the main economic partner of Algeria."

Other accords including the opening of a car production plant owned by French automotive giant PSA were due to be signed during Valls' trip.

French Economy Minister Emmanuel Macron, who is accompanying Valls, was expected to meet his influential Algerian counterpart Abdesselam Bouchouareb.

Le Monde has also reported, citing the Panama Papers, that Bouchouareb had an offshore company established in Panama in April 2015.

It said that the company's mission was to "manage a portfolio of real estate assets in the amount of 700,000 euros ($800,000)".

The press spat refused to disappear on Sunday, with Sellal telling reporters that it was "the duty of the Algerian government" to preserve Bouteflika's image.

"No Algerian would accept seeing the president vilified," he said.