ALGIERS/PARIS (Reuters) - President Emmanuel Macron, visiting Algeria, said on Wednesday he would not be held hostage by France’s colonial involvement there and urged young Algerians to build for the future and not dwell on past “crimes”.
The relationship is scarred by the trauma of the 1954-1962 independence war in which the North Africa country broke with France. Hundreds of thousands of Algerians were killed and both sides used torture.
Macron was in the capital Algiers for talks with President Abdelaziz Bouteflika and senior officials, a rite of passage for all new French presidents.
Many in Algeria had wondered whether Macron would offer an official apology for the past given his statement earlier this year when he described France’s colonial rule as a “crime against humanity”.
But he did not go any further than his predecessor, Francois Hollande, who sought a more conciliatory tone but stopped short of saying sorry.
Instead, Macron’s message to young Algerians was not to harbour grudges from the past but look to the future.
“I’ve already said we need to recognise what we did, but Algeria’s youth can’t just look to its past. It needs to look forward and see how it will create jobs,” Macron said, answering questions from people as he walked through downtown Algiers.
“I‘m not here to judge those in the past. There have been crimes and there were people that also did good things. Your generation must not allow this. It’s not an excuse (to blame the past) for what is happening today,” he said.
When asked by reporters about the past, a visibly annoyed Macron, said it was time to stop asking questions from 20 years ago.
“These benchmarks block our bilateral relationship. They don’t interest me because the ambition I have for the relationship between Algeria and France has nothing to do with what was done for decades. It’s a new story that’s being written,” he told a news conference.
Facing high unemployment, low oil prices, austerity and political uncertainty, Algeria’s youth is likely to warm to Macron’s call to look to the future more than the war veterans.
An inter-governmental forum presided by the countries’ prime ministers will take place in Paris on Thursday to discuss how to develop an economic roadmap.
Economic ties between the two countries have marginally progressed since 2012 and France is now behind China as the main partner. Annual trade stands at about 8 billion euros compared with 6.36 billion five years ago.
More than 400,000 Algerians are given visas for France annually, almost twice as many as in 2012.
While walking near the university, young Algerians came out in force, calling out: “Visas, Please!”
Highlighting just how divided opinion remains some others called out: “Go home! We don’t want you here.”
“This morning I saw too many people simply asking me for visas. That’s not a life project,” Macron told reporters.
Franco-Algerian relations are also a sensitive subject in France. Macron past condemnation of France’s colonial rule angered many at home.
“There must be no taboos between us. But there has to a be a project for the future and I think the Algerians must build their future from Algeria,” Macron said responding to more questions in the streets.
But the thorny issues are unlikely to disappear just yet.
“Excuse me but France will have to apologise for the martyrs we lost,” said a woman who gave her name as Nadia.
Writing by John Irish in Paris; additional reporting by Ulf Laessing in Tunis; Editing by Richard Lough and Richard Balmforth