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Algerian President Visits Paris Amid Political Turmoil - 2003-10-03

Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika flew to Paris Friday, a day after Algeria's leading party left the country's coalition government.

Mr. Bouteflika's one-day visit to Paris offered only a brief relief from the headaches he left in Algiers. On Thursday, Algeria's leading National Liberation Front, or FLN, quit the coalition government, accusing Mr. Bouteflika of stifling political opposition, in order to guarantee his re-election next year.

The FLN's resignation presents a new crisis for Algeria, which is still healing from a brutal civil war that killed more than 100,000 people. It may also hamper Mr. Bouteflika's chances of being re-elected, although he has yet to declare whether he will run.

Mr. Bouteflika's top rival is also the head of the FLN party, Ali Benflis. Fifty-nine-year-old Mr. Benflis was also Mr. Bouteflika's prime minister, until earlier this year. He was ousted, reportedly because of lack of loyalty to Mr. Bouteflika and for harboring his own presidential ambitions. In September, Mr. Bouteflika dismissed six other FLN ministers backed by Mr. Benflis, and replaced them with his own allies.

The FLN is expected to defy a government and court ban Saturday, and hold a special congress in Algiers, to officially nominate Mr. Benflis as its presidential candidate.

Such issues, however, were not on Mr. Bouteflika's official agenda in Paris. President Bouteflika and French President Jacques Chirac inaugurated two art expositions on Algeria. The two leaders then held discussions over lunch at the Elysee presidential palace.

Professor Remi Leveau, an Algerian expert at the Institute of Political Studies in Paris, says Mr. Bouteflika's visit to France and his recent meetings with world leaders at the United Nations, should be seen in light of his political maneuvering back home.

"After his position on the American intervention in Iraq, President Chirac is very popular in Algeria," said Mr. Leveau. "So, if he supports President Bouteflika, it's a political gain for him, within Algeria, within the Algerian political system also."

Under Mr. Bouteflika's presidency, once-rocky relations between Algeria and its old colonizer, France, have improved. The president is also credited with ending Algeria's diplomatic isolation that took place during the civil war of the 1990s, and with persuading many Islamist militants in Algeria to give up their arms. But his domestic popularity has plummeted, as unemployment and economic difficulties have soared.