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Algeria Celebrates 40 Years of Independence from France - 2002-07-05

On July 5, Algeria marks 40 years of independence from France. After a bitter of war of liberation, Algeria adopted a socialist government and became a prominent champion of Third World causes. It also became politically and economically unstable with an unending conflict raging between its military rulers and Islamic guerrilla groups. In this edition of Dateline, Carol Castiel looks at Algerian-French relations and the prospects for this North African nation.

The chronic cycle of violence that was the legacy of the brutal eight-year war of independence against the French, continues. Successive Algerian military regimes have fought bloody battles with opponents in which thousands were killed. In 1992, the military cancelled the outcome of national elections won by the Islamic Salvation Front. While only a few hundred French citizens remain in Algeria today, about 1.5 million first and second-generation Algerians live 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.

Nadjia Bouzeghane is Paris bureau chief for the Algerian newspaper, El Watan. Ms. Bouzeghane says that even now, the relationship between France and Algeria remains troubled. Many French and Algerians who participated in the 1954 to 1962 war of independence are still alive. They include Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika and French President Jacques Chirac. And, debate about the war is ongoing.

And, 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, at age 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. Nonetheless, Archbishop Tessier says he remains a Frenchman at heart.

But few French - or Algerians for that matter - are so serene about reconciling the two cultures. France has irritated Algeria for not formally apologizing for its colonial past. And in France, remorse over the French army's brutality during Algeria's war of independence remains a topic of ongoing debate.

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 is an American Protestant clergyman in Algeria. He 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, 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," he said.

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.

Professor Anthony Cordesman is a scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. He says the desire for young Algerians to emigrate to France, and the rise of Islamic fundamentalist groups in Algeria, are due in large part to the failure of the government to meet the basic needs of Algerians.

"Algeria has two governments, the one that is sort of the formal government which holds elections and which holds civil authority and the Algerian military which is sometimes called, 'the Power,'"he said. "Both governments have a history of intense corruption, incompetence, and failure to meet the needs of the Algerian people."

Poverty, a housing shortage, and an unemployment rate of at least 30 percent are the lot of the young who make up two-thirds of Algeria's 30 million people. This growing economic despair has fueled the rise of the Islamic Salvation Front which was poised to win the 1992 parliamentary elections before the military regime cancelled the vote. Anthony Cordesman says Algerians remain caught between two warring sides in a non-ending conflict.

"Since that time there's been a continuing low-level civil war some of it extremely violent, terrorism on both sides," Mr. Cordesman explained. "The presidents have still been chosen by the military in reality. When they have challenged the military and pushed toward reform, they have been pushed out of power. So, on the one hand you have the façade of secular government and on the other hand, a drift toward very violent extremist Islamic movements with the people of Algeria caught in the middle."

Professor Cordesman says there is a competent political center in Algeria, of which the Berber minority is a part. However, he laments the current political system which prevents them from gaining real power.

"Algeria is a country with a very highly educated population," he said. "There are many journalists, academics, businessmen, people in parties outside this sort of junta that have pushed for all kinds of political, economic and social reform. The Berbers certainly have been pushing for reform as well as for their own rights. They've tried to speak for the country not simply for the ethnic group. But at present unfortunately you have a government, which really is a front for the military. And while the killings are down from several thousand a month to what seems to be less than a hundred, the struggle between those forces and the Islamist extremists continues."

Professor Cordesman suggests that for fundamental change to occur in Algeria, it will have to emanate from the military itself. "Short of some kind of reform from within the military, or short of a confrontation where junior officers side with the President and a reform President rather than their commanders, the sort of hidden military junta in this country is going to stay in power," he said. "And for the last 40 years it has demonstrated one thing and that is that it is not only corrupt but almost totally incompetent."

Still, many analysts credit current Algerian President Abel Aziz-Bouteflika for reducing violence and restoring a measure of respectability to the oil-rich nation. Algeria's government points to its April presidential election, as well as other democratizing elements. In addition, 6,000 insurgents accepted the government's 1999 offer of amnesty in return for laying down their arms.

However, analysts say that until structural reforms emerge that permit the formation and participation of political groups which can challenge the military regime on the one hand, and Islamist extremists on the other, violence may continue to beset Algeria for many years to come.