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Algerian Presence at Bastille Day Parade Sparks Bitter Debate

Algerian soldiers attend a welcome ceremony with other foreign soldiers from 80 nations that fought for France in World War I, and descendants of veterans in Paris, July 7, 2014.
Algerian soldiers attend a welcome ceremony with other foreign soldiers from 80 nations that fought for France in World War I, and descendants of veterans in Paris, July 7, 2014.
Lisa Bryant

France celebrates Bastille Day on July 14 by marking another historic event - the upcoming centenary of World War I. Countries who fought in the 1914-1918 conflict will also participate at the Bastille Day parade in Paris. But from the  presence of Algerian forces is exposing longstanding tensions between France and Algeria.

Last year, African forces participating in the operation against Islamist rebels in Mali marched down the Champs Elysees.This year the spotlight is on another conflict, World War I, which began 100 years ago.

French President Francois Hollande has invited dozens of nations whose soldiers died on the battlefields of the Great War to join the July 14 event. That includes France's former colony, Algeria.  Three Algerian military officials will participate in the events.

Although France is downplaying their presence, the announcement has sparked strong reactions - both in France and Algeria - laying bare old and unhealed wounds.  A century ago, Algeria was not an independent country, but a colony of France. It achieved its independence half-a-century later, after a long and bloody conflict.

In Algeria, critics denounced their country's participation in Bastille Day, claiming many Algerians were forcibly conscripted during World War I. And many critics on both sides of the Mediterranean note that many differences between the two nations have never been fully examined or resolved.

In France, the far-right National Front launched a campaign to protest Algeria's participation. The party argues Algiers has failed to resolve sensitive issues like the expulsion of French citizens after Algeria's independence.

Speaking on French TV this week, National Front leader Marine Le Pen said the Algerians fighting in World War I were actually French citizens at the time. She said they have no right to be present at the parade - particularly since today, the Algerian government does nothing but insult France.

But others support Algeria's Bastille Day participation. They include French citizen Alain Ferki, who heads an association of children of so-called Harkis - the name for Algerians who fought on France's side. Ferki's father arrived in France as a young man. He was among the many African forces fighting alongside France during World War II.

Ferki recounts how these African forces  - Moroccans, Tunisians and Algerians - landed on the southern French coast. They helped liberate the Provence region and the French island of Corsica from Nazi occupation.  He says the presence of these African soldiers, both during the Great War and World War II, has not been sufficiently appreciated.

Ferki believes France and Algeria must turn the page on a bitter past. He said it's the future of both countries to strengthen economic, cultural and political ties. And he hopes Algeria's presence during Bastille Day Monday will be a step in that direction.

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