France’s Macron woos Algeria, but can’t erase colonial scars

August 27, 2022 GMT
French President Emmanuel Macron, left, gestures during a press conference with Algerian President Abdelmajid Tebboune Thursday, Aug. 25, 2022 in Algiers. Emmanuel Macron arrived in Algeria for a three-day visit aimed at addressing two major challenges: boosting future economic relations and healing colonial-era wounds. The visit comes less than a year after a monthlong diplomatic crisis between the two countries stirred up tensions 60 years after the North African country won its independence from France. (AP Photo/Anis Belghoul)
French President Emmanuel Macron, left, gestures during a press conference with Algerian President Abdelmajid Tebboune Thursday, Aug. 25, 2022 in Algiers. Emmanuel Macron arrived in Algeria for a three-day visit aimed at addressing two major challenges: boosting future economic relations and healing colonial-era wounds. The visit comes less than a year after a monthlong diplomatic crisis between the two countries stirred up tensions 60 years after the North African country won its independence from France. (AP Photo/Anis Belghoul)
French President Emmanuel Macron, left, gestures during a press conference with Algerian President Abdelmajid Tebboune Thursday, Aug. 25, 2022 in Algiers. Emmanuel Macron arrived in Algeria for a three-day visit aimed at addressing two major challenges: boosting future economic relations and healing colonial-era wounds. The visit comes less than a year after a monthlong diplomatic crisis between the two countries stirred up tensions 60 years after the North African country won its independence from France. (AP Photo/Anis Belghoul)
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French President Emmanuel Macron, left, gestures during a press conference with Algerian President Abdelmajid Tebboune Thursday, Aug. 25, 2022 in Algiers. Emmanuel Macron arrived in Algeria for a three-day visit aimed at addressing two major challenges: boosting future economic relations and healing colonial-era wounds. The visit comes less than a year after a monthlong diplomatic crisis between the two countries stirred up tensions 60 years after the North African country won its independence from France. (AP Photo/Anis Belghoul)
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French President Emmanuel Macron, left, gestures during a press conference with Algerian President Abdelmajid Tebboune Thursday, Aug. 25, 2022 in Algiers. Emmanuel Macron arrived in Algeria for a three-day visit aimed at addressing two major challenges: boosting future economic relations and healing colonial-era wounds. The visit comes less than a year after a monthlong diplomatic crisis between the two countries stirred up tensions 60 years after the North African country won its independence from France. (AP Photo/Anis Belghoul)

ORAN, Algeria (AP) — The leaders of France and Algeria took an important step Saturday toward mending relations scarred by disputes over migration and the legacy of colonial crimes, agreeing to cooperate on energy, security and reassessing their joint history.

French President Emmanuel Macron wrapped up a three-day visit to Algeria with a raft of accords that France hopes will smooth ties with Africa’s largest country, a major gas and oil supplier to Europe and an influential regional military player.

Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune hailed “an excellent and very successful” visit and credited Macron’s personal efforts toward rapprochement. The two were chummy at their final meeting Saturday, smiling, embracing and holding hands. Tebboune specifically praised an unprecedented joint security meeting, without elaborating.

But the accords released by Macron’s office were thin on specifics, and stop far short of an official apology for France’s colonial-era wrongdoing, which Algerians have long clamored for.

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The countries agreed to cooperate on gas and hydrogen development and medical research, and create a joint commission to examine archives from the 130 years when Algeria was the crown jewel in France’s empire.

The study will include the fallout from French nuclear tests in the Algerian Sahara, unsettled questions about the remains of slain resistance fighters and other dark chapters of Algeria’s eight-year war for independence.

“I want truth and recognition,” instead of “repentance,” Macron said.

Mohand Arezki Ferrad, a former lawmaker who teaches at the Institute of History of Algiers, called the new commission “a clever maneuver to clear himself of the obligation to ask forgiveness from Algeria for what he himself called crimes against humanity.”

As France’s first leader born after the colonial era, Macron has sought to confront his country’s past wrongdoing while pivoting to a new era of relations with once-colonized lands.

“We had moving moments these last few days that allowed us to build the foundation of what is to come,” Macron said in wrapping up his trip.

He met religious leaders, recorded a TikTok video in an iconic Algerian record shop and watched a performance of break-dancers who hope to compete in the 2024 Olympics in Paris. He also faced a few angry chanters who reminded him they haven’t forgotten about the “martyrs” of the Algerian war for independence.

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“A lot remains to be done,” he later acknowledged.

The true number of Algerians who died in the war and its aftermath is unknown, as many were never identified. Last year, Macron acknowledged that French forces used torture in Algeria, and he commemorated victims of a deadly police crackdown on pro-independence protesters in Paris in 1961, which French authorities sought to cover up for decades.

But Macron’s reconciliation efforts have faced criticism at home, amid growing public support for far-right nationalists who champion the grievances of French descendants of colonial rule.

“There is no political will among the French authorities, whether on the right or on the left, to look the colonial past in the face,” said Abdelmalek Alouane, professor at Science Po university in Algiers.

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While he welcomed the overall message of Macron’s trip, Alouane asked, “Is a commission of experts really necessary for the French authorities to return to us skulls of resistance fighters? ... Why has the commission on the compensation of Algerian victims of French nuclear tests in southern Algeria between 1960 and 1967 never been able to shed light on this human and ecological disaster?”

“Algerians do not want to haggle over the memory of their martyrs,” he said.

Earlier Saturday, the French leader visited Disco Maghreb, an iconic record store In the western Algerian city of Oran and a recording label for artists who perform traditional Rai music. Franco-Algerian artist DJ Snake has helped bring attention to Disco Maghreb and Rai rhythms, and Macron sent the DJ a TikTok video message from the shop.

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It was seen as part of Macron’s efforts to rely on young people to pitch Franco-Algerian relations forward instead of dwelling on the past.

Macron promised France would become more flexible in issuing visas to Algerians after a major diplomatic crisis over the issue last year. France sharply curtailed visas for people from North Africa because governments there were refusing to take back migrants refused asylum in France.

Algeria then recalled its ambassador to France over comments by Macron about Algeria’s pre-colonial history and post-colonial system of government, and refused permission for France to fly military planes in its air space.

Macron’s trip went a long way toward reconciliation, and reviving economic cooperation. Russia’s war in Ukraine has notably reinforced the North African nation’s role as a key energy supplier as European countries seek alternatives to Russian energy.

Macron’s office said he would also raise human rights concerns. Algeria has seen a creeping crackdown on dissent since pro-democracy protests in 2019.

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Oleg Cetinic in Oran and Algiers contributed to this report.