Algiers: President Emmanuel Macron arrived in Algeria on Thursday for a three-day visit aimed at mending ties with the former French colony, which this year marked its 60th anniversary of independence.
The first French president to be born after Algerian independence, Macron is hoping “to lay a foundation to rebuild and develop” a sometimes difficult relationship with the North African nation, his office said.
Accompanied by seven ministers, Macron arrived landed at 3:30pm (1430 GMT) at Houari Boumediene Airport in the capital Algiers, where he was to be received by President Abdul Madjid Tebboune.
The two heads of state will visit a monument to martyrs of the country’s war for independence, which ended more than 130 years of French colonial rule in 1962.
Franco-Algerian relations have seen repeated crises since then.
The French leader, on his second visit to Algeria since he took power in 2017, “has chosen to direct this visit towards the future, (focusing on) start-ups, innovation, youth, new sectors,” the Elysee said.
Algerian media said Macron’s visit showed both countries’ desire for relations built around “a new vision based on equal treatment and balance of interests”.
It also reflected “a recognition of Algeria’s central role in the region” and the country’s “return to the international scene.”
Macron, who will meet entrepreneurs in Algiers as well as young people in the second city Oran, is accompanied by a 90-strong delegation.
France’s chief rabbi Haim Korsia, the son of Algerian-born Jews, withdrew from the trip at the last moment after testing positive for Covid-19.
His planned attendance had been criticised by prominent Islamist politician Abderrazak Makri and social media users in Algeria, where the Palestinian cause is widely supported.
Ties between Paris and Algiers have been particularly stormy since last year, when Macron questioned Algeria’s existence as a nation before the French occupation and accused the government of fomenting “hatred towards France”.
Tebboune withdrew his country’s ambassador in response and banned French military aircraft from its airspace.
Better ties ‘a necessity’
But Macron’s office said he “regretted” the misunderstandings caused by his comments, and his aides believe both sides have moved on.
They note the resumption of normal diplomatic relations and overflights to French army bases further south in Africa.
Analyst Mansour Kedidir said that “given instability in the Maghreb region, conflicts in the Sahel and the war in Ukraine, improving ties between France and Algeria is a political necessity”.
Macron and Tebboune will discuss the situation in Algeria’s southern neighbour Mali, as well as the growing influence in the region of Russia, Algeria’s top arms supplier.
France’s latest efforts to mend ties comes as Algeria moves to fill a vast shortfall in gas supplies to Europe following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
European nations are seeking to end their dependence on Russian hydrocarbons, giving Algeria - Africa’s biggest gas exporter with direct pipelines to Spain and Italy - renewed clout.
“The French president will certainly ask Algeria to make an effort to try to increase its gas production,” said Algerian economist Abderrahmane Mebtoul.
But Macron’s office has said gas is not a major feature of the visit - although the head of French energy firm Engie, Catherine MacGregor, will be on Macron’s delegation.
Macron has long ruled out issuing an apology for the highly sensitive issue of colonialism, but he has made a series of gestures aimed at healing past wounds.
In Algiers, few have much sympathy towards Macron, who during his first election campaign had described French colonialism as a “crime against humanity”.
“Before he was president, he used nice words, he visited (Algeria), but right after he went back to France, he changed,” said computer scientist Othmane Abdellouche, 62.
“He used a totally different discourse”.
But businessman Kamel Moula, who heads the Council of Economic Renewal Algerian, told the TSA news website that he wanted to see “a new mode of cooperation” between the two countries that would see them “jointly conquer new markets”.
French historians say half a million civilians and combatants died during Algeria’s bloody war for independence, 400,000 of them Algerian. The Algerian authorities say 1.5 million were killed.
Tebboune’s office said in October that over 5.6 million Algerians were killed during the colonial period.
Algerian rights groups have also urged Macron not to overlook human rights abuses by the government that came to power after long-time leader Abdelaziz Bouteflika stepped down in 2019.
Tebboune, a prime minister under Bouteflika, has clamped down on the Hirak opposition movement that forced his predecessor to resign.