Sarkozy Confronted by Algerian Anger

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If French President Nicolas Sarkozy knew he was certain of glowing treatment in the U.S. by marketing himself as the anti-Jacques Chirac, that same reputation will earn him a chillier greeting during his state visit to Algeria, where his predecessor is still fondly remembered. Indeed Sarkozy's embrace of tougher anti-immigration policies have created considerable antipathy in Algeria — as has the President's refusal to apologize for crimes and abuses committed during France's colonial past. The resentment has even gotten personal: last week, apparently referring to Sarkozy's distant Jewish ancestry, the Algerian Veterans Affairs Minister Mohammed Cherif Abbès described France's "Jewish lobby" as "the real architect of Sarkozy's ascent to power".

As he headed into the three-day visit to Algeria Monday, the usually combative Sarkozy and his team took pains to quell the rising tensions between France and its former colonial possession, and wave off the anti-Semitic comments in particular as the uttering of a loose cannon seeking to advance an anti-French agenda. Rather than canceling the trip, Elysée officials said Sarkozy planned to press ahead to help restore bilateral relations between the two countries — and sign nearly $5 billion in business contracts prepared for finalization for the likes of energy companies Total and Gaz de France. "These comments are evidence that there remains a minority of political actors in Algeria who want to undermine friendship and partnership with France — and who thereby provide all the more motivation for President Sarkozy to make the visit as planned," explained Elysée spokesman David Martinon. "We have important things to do and say together, including problems of racism and anti-Semitism that President Sarkozy will also speak unflinchingly about."

Surprisingly to some, the most striking comments Sarkozy had upon arrival Monday night had to do with France's own colonial past, which he said was "profoundly unjust, [and] contrary to the three founding words of our republic: liberté, egalité, franternité". The view reversed Sarkozy's attitudes before becoming President, when he raised hackles in Algeria with his mocking disdain of what he has called the "detestable fashion of repentance" of French politicians, such as his predecessor, for alleged injustices inflicted during France's colonial period. After earlier acknowledging the role of the French state in the persecution of Jews during France's World War II occupation early in his presidency, Chirac relieved Algerians in 2006 — and infuriated many conservatives — by repealing an article in a law requiring French history books to teach the "positive role of France's overseas presence, notably in North Africa".

But even if he stopped short of the official apology some in Algeria had demanded, in his opening remarks in Algiers Monday Sarkozy did come more than halfway, admitting "yes, terrible crimes were committed throughout the war of independence that claimed innumerable victims on both sides", and that it was to honor all those victims that he'd made the trips. "It's this work of remembering that I've come to offer the Algerian people," he said.

Despite that dramatic change of tone, Sarkozy still has a long way to go to endear himself to Algerians. He's angered many locals and their political leaders with his moves to cut back legal immigration and crack down hard on illegal immigrants. Critics, meanwhile, claim his creation of a Ministry of Immigration and National Identity stigmatizes foreigners as a threat to French identity.

Sarkozy's tough talk and promises to impose order on France's troubled suburban housing projects also touches nerves in Algeria, since residents of such "banlieues" are frequently the French-born children of immigrants from Africa. Since winning its independence in 1962 after a brutal war, Algeria has long provided the largest flow of immigrants to France — though the number of visas issued to Algerians had rapidly dropped even before Sarkozy's election from 270,000 in 2001 to 120,000 this year. The pillars of Algeria's dominating National Liberation Front Party, meanwhile, trace their entry into politics to the armed struggle against France for independence.

Indeed, despite Sarkozy's acnowledgement of the often brutal French colonialization — and the chilling of relations between Paris and Algiers it had provoked in the past — it's unlikely his comments will fully satisfy Algerian critics like President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who once likened French occupation of his country to Germany's WWII occupation of France. But Sarkozy's decision to make the trip despite the ambient hostility toward him — and his surprising reversal in discussing France's colonial past — was an indication he was ready to say and do some important things while in Algeria.

In doing so, he must have caught his outspoken detractors off guard. On November 26, the Veterans' Affairs Minister Abbès warned the nation's largest circulation paper el Khabar, that "there will be no normalizing of relations with France under Sarkozy," whose election he accredited to a French "Jewish lobby" that commands "a monopoly of industry in France." In spite of the outcry across France's political spectrum that the comment caused, Bouteflika's repudiation was mild when stating Abbès' analysis "in no way reflects Algeria's [official] view", and said he'd be greeting the French President "as a friend."

Meanwhile, with Bouteflika's ruling conservatives increasingly forced to impose harder-line nationalist and even religious policies to placate the growing power of Islamist-influenced rightists, Sarkozy clearly believes abandoning his trip in protest would be giving Abbès and his allies just what they want. "It's clear there are small but vocal majorities who want relations between the countries to worsen, not improve," Martinon explains. "We won't play into their hands by taking their bait."