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Algeria Marks WWII Anniversary with Call for French Apology

Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, left, shakes hands with French President Jacques Chirac before their meeting at Elysee Palace in Paris
As Europe continues to celebrate the end of World War II, Algeria is wrestling with a very different victory day memory. On May 8, 1945, the same day Nazi Germany's unconditional surrender was ratified, French forces fired on thousands of protesters in Algeria. Demands are growing for the French government to issue a formal apology to Algiers - and to confront its colonial past.

It took half a century for a French leader to apologize for France's role in deporting tens of thousands of Jews to Nazi concentration camps. French President Jacques Chirac did so, in 1995.

Now, activists in France and Algeria are demanding another apology - this time for the killing of thousands of Algerians 60 years ago, in what is called the "Setif massacre." Accounts very wildly on just how many Algerians were killed - some say 15,000, others as many as 45,000.

What historians do agree on is that French forces killed many people on May 8, 1945, when they opened fire on protesters in Setif and several other eastern Algerian towns.

The demonstrations were launched not only to celebrate the end of World War II, but also to press new demands on France, its colonizer at the time. Rabah Mahiout, author of a recent book on Algeria's independence, notes that many Algerians fought alongside Free French forces against Nazi Germany. With the war's end, he says, Algerians wanted either completely equal status with French citizens, or autonomy from France. What they got, he argues, was repression.

In February, France's ambassador to Algeria described the Setif killings as a, quote, "inexcusable tragedy." And in an interview published in Algeria's El Watan newspaper Sunday, French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier suggested that France's role in the killings would be part of discussions on forging a French-Algerian friendship treaty this year.

But during weekend commemorations of the Setif killings, Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika suggested Algiers was looking for a more explicit French gesture. The Algerian people, Mr. Bouteflika said, have not stopped waiting for a recognition from France of all the acts committed during its colonization, which lasted from 1830 to 1962.

Paris and Algiers maintained very rocky relations after Algeria's bitterly fought, eight-year war of independence. But in recent years, relations have improved considerably. In 2003, French President Jacques Chirac became the first French leader in more than 40 years to pay an official visit to Algeria. President Bouteflika made his own groundbreaking trip to France in 2000.

Nonetheless, French historian Benjamin Stora says that for years there has been little debate in France about its colonial legacy. Now, Mr. Stora says, there is a new generation of French and Algerians who want to know about everything. Trying to forget about the past would be a big mistake, he says. Debate about Algeria is expanding within French society.

Revelations about other French excesses in Algeria have also fueled the debate. They have included confessions by former French generals of atrocities committed during the Algerian war of independence. And allegations that far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen tortured Algerians during the period. Mr. Le Pen has denied those reports.

History cannot be forgotten, Mr. Stora says. The more distant events grow, the more they rise to the surface. That is the paradox.

Algeria is not the only former colonial country where France has left a mixed legacy. Criticism continues to be aired against supposed meddling by France in countries like Ivory Coast, where thousands of French peacekeeping troops are currently stationed.

The French people are also criticizing their country's colonial past. Some have even denounced a newly passed bill in the French national assembly that calls on educational programs to focus on the "positive role" France played in its former colonies. And Algerians and other foreign veterans of the French army have long called for the French government to grant them pensions equal to those of their French-born counterparts.

Mr. Mahiout, the Algerian author, agrees that France has a hard time coming to grips with its behavior in Algerian and its other former colonies.

Mr. Mahiout believes France must issue a formal apology for the Setif killings - in the same way it apologized for its role in deporting Jews during World War II. Algerians are still traumatized, he says. For many, May 8, 1945 was not that long ago.