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Algeria Celebrates 40 Years of Independence; Relations With France Still Complex - 2002-06-18


On July 5, Algeria will mark 40 years of independence from France after a bitter war of liberation. Only a few hundred French citizens remain in Algeria, compared to about 1.5 million first and second-generation Algerians living in France. Ties between the two countries remain complex and contradictory.

The yeasty smell of fresh baguettes floats from bakeries in downtown Algiers, where faded French signs still decorate the streets. Some of the leading Algerian newspapers are still printed in French, and French expressions liberally pepper the local Arabic dialect.

Meanwhile, leading Algerian writers, artists and singers, like Cheb Khaled, live across the Mediterranean Sea in France and travel easily between the two countries. Other Algerians in France keep a close eye on politics at home. When anti-government demonstrations ignited in eastern Algeria last year, thousands of Algerians marched in solidarity through French streets. And along with France's traditional steak-frites, North African couscous remains a favorite French dish.

These anecdotes attest to far deeper ties between Algeria and its one-time colonial power, France.

"Even now, the relationship between France and Algeria remains troubled," said Nadjia Bouzeghane, Paris bureau chief for the Algerian newspaper, El Watan. Ms. Bouzeghane said Many French and Algerian citizens who participated in the 1954-1962 war of independence are still alive. They include Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika and French President Jacques Chirac. And to make matters more complex, debate about the war is ongoing.

Ms. Bouzeghane and others say France and Algeria are not always looking at the past - or the future - in the same way. One key reason is that 70 percent of Algerians are under the age of 30. So for many here, tales of the war come second-hand, from parents and teachers.

About one million French settlers fled Algeria after 1962, when the country formally gained independence after more than 130 years of colonial rule. About 10,000 more French left in the 1990s during Algeria's civil war which pitted Islamist extremists against the military-backed government.

Today, only a few hundred French remain in Algeria. One of them is Henri Tessier, the Roman Catholic archbishop of Algiers. Archbishop Tessier arrived in Algeria in 1946, at the age of 16. Now 72, the Catholic leader has adopted Algerian citizenship. He speaks and writes in fluent Arabic. He reads Algerian books and newspapers. Most of his friends are Algerian.

Archbishop Tessier says he remains a Frenchman at heart, but few French (or Algerians) are so serene about reconciling the two cultures. France has irritated Algeria for not formally apologizing for its colonial past. In France, remorse over the French army's brutality during Algeria's war of independence remains a topic of ongoing debate.

Just this month, fresh allegations surfaced that far-right French politician Jean-Marie Le Pen had tortured resistance fighters when he served as a paratrooper in Algeria in 1957. Mr. Le Pen has denied the reports.

But several French generals have admitted to torture during the war. One retired general, Paul Aussaresses, was stripped of his rank and fined by a Paris court last year for writing an unrepentant memoir of his acts.

Nonetheless, many analysts say French-Algerian ties are improving. French businesses are returning to Algeria, after the country's 1990s civil war. This year, the airline company Air Lib started the first French flights between Paris and Algiers in a decade, and a new French high school will open in Algiers in September.

Political relations are also on the mend. French officials partly credit President Bouteflika's efforts to restore Algeria's international credibility, after a decade of diplomatic isolation.

At the same time, young Algerians, like Zoheir Meheni, see France and other European countries, not Algeria, as the new lands of opportunity. A 29-year-old language student at the University of Algiers, Mr. Meheni says he cannot find work or political freedom in Algeria. He says he is being "colonized," by an Algerian government that does not respect its citizens. He says he wants to emigrate to a country that does.

Hugh Johnson, a American Protestant clergyman in Algeria, says unemployment and poverty here are forcing many youths to seek work elsewhere. These days, Mr. Johnson says he is spending much of his time helping Algerians fill out visa forms for France.

"They do not want to leave the country necessarily," he said, "but they want to be able to travel more freely. And with the visa restrictions right now, the only way to travel freely is to be a French citizen and go back to France."

El Watan newspaper correspondent, Nadjia Bouzeghane, says Algerian youth are aware that life in France is hard. Friends and family living in France complain of discrimination. At the same time, she says, France continues to fascinate Algeria's young generation just as it did decades ago.

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