Algiers: French President Francois Hollande acknowledged on Thursday France’s “brutal” colonial rule over the Algerian people, without apologising for it, as he sought to launch a new era in ties on a two-day visit.
“Over 132 years, Algeria was subjected to a profoundly unjust and brutal system,” Hollande told the Algerian parliament on the final day of a landmark visit to the North African country, to applause from MPs.
“This system has a name: it is colonialism and I recognise the suffering that colonialism inflicted on the Algerian people,” he said.
In the audience were numerous veterans who fought in the vicious 1954 to 1962 war of independence from France that killed an estimated 1.5 million Algerians.
The French president said after arriving in Algiers on Wednesday that he had not come to say sorry for the crimes committed during the colonial period, as some, including a dozen political parties, have demanded.
But he stressed the importance of recognising what happened as a way of beginning a new era in bilateral relations, saying nothing would come from “forgetfulness or denial.”
Hollande referred to specific atrocities, notably the massacre at Setif, where nationalist unrest that broke out at the end of World War II was brutally suppressed by French forces, leaving thousands dead.
“On May 8, 1945, when the world triumphed over brutality, France forgot its universal values,” Hollande said.
The truth should also be spoken about how Algeria gained its independence, “in this war whose name was not mentioned in France for a long time.”
“We have a duty to speak the truth about the violence, injustices, massacres and torture,” he said, adding that doing so strengthened French-Algerian ties.
Algerian Foreign Minister Mourad Medelsi, in a first official reaction, welcomed Hollande’s words for emphasising “the culture of peace and of respect for others” that he said were “two basic principles” of Algerian diplomacy.
MPs also broadly saluted the speech as a step forward, despite some regretting the lack of an apology.
Hollande has “signalled a willingness to work with Algeria in a partnership between equals and to finally put an end to this neocolonialist spirit that has tinged relations,” said Senate Vice-President Zohra Drif.
The two countries are bound by human, economic and cultural ties.
More than half a million Algerians live in France, and nearly 200,000 Algerians receive French visas every year, but many are also frustrated at not being able to obtain them to seek a better life in Europe.
Hollande promised on Thursday to “better accommodate” Algerians seeking to move to France and to streamline the visa process.
But he said France expected Algeria “to open its doors more widely to the French who wish to come to your country,” alluding to former French settlers in Algeria and the pro-French Algerians, known as “harkis”, who moved to France after the war.
Afterwards, Hollande laid a wreath at martyrs monument in central Algiers, which commemorates the victims of the independence war. He also paid homage to Maurice Audin, a French sympathiser who was tortured by French paratroopers and disappeared in 1957.
He then flew to the western city of Tlemcen, where he addressed students at the university and received an honorary degree.
The socialist president, accompanied by a 200-strong delegation including nine cabinet ministers and around 40 business leaders, is in Algeria after a period of lukewarm ties under his rightwing predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy.
His trip to the oil-rich country also comes at a time when the French economy is sorely in need of a boost.
After talks with his Algerian counterpart Abdul Aziz Bouteflika on Wednesday, the two leaders signed a declaration of friendship and cooperation. That was one of six accords that envisage joint activities in defence, finance, industry and agriculture.
Separately, an agreement was signed for the construction of a car factory by French vehicle manufacturer Renault near the western city of Oran.