Macron strives to improve ties with Algeria during first state visit
Tunis - French President Emmanuel Macron extended a gesture of goodwill to Algerians by offering to return the skulls of 37 Algerian resistance fighters killed in the 19th century.
The move, which had been sought by Algerian intellectuals and archaeologists, came as Macron looks to strengthen ties with France’s former North African colony.
Macron described himself as a “friend of Algeria” and “a constructive partner who wants to strengthen our links” on December 6 during his first official visit to Algeria as president.
The return of the skulls and other efforts, he said, would help the two countries “turn together towards the future.”
The relationship between France and Algeria has long been strained by its colonial past and a brutal independence war in the 1950s and 1960s. While the two countries are looking to bolster economic and security ties, some Algerians said steps should first be taken towards reconciliation.
Algerian diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi said Algeria has the right to ask France to apologise for crimes committed during the colonial era, including the killing of an estimated hundreds of thousands of indigenous Algerians.
Algerian War Veterans Minister Tayeb Zitouni told the state radio that Algeria expected much from Macron’s visit “in terms of memory.”
“Algeria will never bargain or turn the page in relations with France before the issue of memory is resolved,” Zitouni said, noting that apart from the skulls being returned, Algeria asked France to share records from the 1954-62 independence war and provide compensation for victims of an atomic bomb test conducted in the Algerian Sahara.
Despite promising to return the skulls, Macron gave mixed signals as to how far France would go to make amends.
“I know the history but I am not a hostage of the past,” Macron told the Algerian daily El Watan, “but from now on, I hope that we will turn together towards the future.”
Walking through central Algiers, Macron was swamped by requests to approve more visa applications for young Algerians. One girl drew laughs when she shouted from her balcony: “Mr Macron, you are the youngest and the most beautiful president in the world.”
Macron’s approach to French- Algerian relations has been met with general optimism by many analysts.
“President Macron wants to be reformist and an innovator and he is doing that with much out of sincerity,” commented Algerian daily L’Expression, which has close ties to the government, in an editorial.
The government-controlled El Moudjahid wrote in an editorial that “while the path to genuine reconciliation is long and tricky, more steps will be taken, we are convinced as the pending issues are progressively discussed and treated. Mr Macron’s visit is highly useful.”
Before his election in June, Macron called France’s colonial history a “crime against humanity” during a visit to Algiers. The statement prompted a backlash from France’s far right but won praise in Algeria.
In more recent statements, however, Macron has said he advocates “neither denial nor repentance,” stressing that “we cannot remain trapped in the past.”
Macron called for expanding trade and investment between the two countries, saying he would “encourage our firms to expand their presence in Algeria.”
Despite losing a share of the Algerian market to China, France relies on Algeria as its top trading partner in Africa.
Another issue discussed was the expansion of French-Algerian security cooperation to counter terrorism.
Paris deployed 4,000 soldiers in Mali and the surrounding regions as part of a force to fight extremism but Algeria has not joined the group. Members of the G5 Sahel force are to meet in Paris on December 13.
Macron met with Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika for almost an hour before seeing other Algerian leaders, including military chief Ahmed Gaid Salah. The day after the visit to Algeria, Macron travelled to Qatar, where he met with Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamid al-Thani.