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Chirac Heads for Algeria - 2003-02-28


French President Jacques Chirac leaves for Algeria Sunday for his first official visit as head of state to France's former North African colony. The three-day trip is intended to strengthen bilateral relations that suffered during Algeria's civil war in the 1990s.

President Chirac made a quick stopover in Algeria in December, 2001, when floods devastated part of the North African country. But this trip to Algiers is billed as Mr. Chirac's first official visit since his election as French president in 1995. Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika made his own inaugural visit to France in June, 2000.

Algerian expert Louis Martinez said Mr. Chirac's trip to Algeria aims to improve business ties and to turn a page on once-frosty French-Algerian relations.

Mr. Martinez, an analyst at the Paris-based Center for International Research and Studies, said Mr. Chirac's visit also sends a signal that France is a friend of the Arab world. That message is particularly important these days, he said, as Western countries consider a possible war on Iraq.

Relations between France and its former colony have steadily improved since the 1990s, when Algeria was plunged into a civil war that killed more than 100,000 people. Both sides in the conflict were accused of atrocities against civilians. The worst of the fighting ended in the late 1990s, but clashes continue between government forces and Muslim extremists.

The Algerian government was widely criticized for alleged excesses during the civil war. Thousands of Algerians who disappeared during the conflict still remain unaccounted for.

On Thursday, Amnesty International published a report accusing Mr. Bouteflika's government of practicing systematic torture. But the group also praised Algiers for being more open about questions of human rights violations.

Some analysts predict that during his visit, the French president will likely address the need for further democratic reforms in Algeria, without specifically referring to human rights matters.

During the war, many French and other foreign businesses pulled out of Algeria. French schools closed, and thousands of French citizens fled the North African country. Algeria became virtually isolated internationally.

Today, foreign investment is slowly returning. And late last year, French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin inaugurated a new French high school in Algiers.

Mr. Bouteflika's government has also been shoring up its relations with the United States. Washington recently agreed to sell weapons to the Algerian government and is helping the government's continuing war against the Muslim extremists.

Mr. Martinez does not believe France and the United States are rivals in Algeria. He said France prefers to allow the Bush administration to help Algiers militarily. France paid heavily for its seeming cooperation with Algiers in the mid-1990s, when Muslim extremists made several terrorist attacks on French soil. Friday, Mr. Martinez said, Paris is more interested in shoring up bilateral cultural and economic ties.

For its part, Algiers has called for greater French investment, a point stressed by Algerian Prime Minister Ali Benflis during a visit to Paris in January.

Oil-rich Algeria is trying to diversify its economy to stress agriculture and other sectors. But French businesses are still reluctant to move into Algeria, until there are more strides toward privatization and banking reforms.

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