ALGIERS, Algeria – French President Francois Hollande acknowledged the “unjust” and “brutal” nature of France’s occupation of Algeria for 132 years, but stopped short Thursday of apologizing for the past as many Algerians have demanded.
On the second day of his state visit to this North African nation, he told the two houses of parliament that “I recognize the suffering the colonial system has inflicted” on the Algerian people.
He specifically recognized the “massacres” by the French during the seven-year war that led to Algerian independence in 1962. The admission was a profound departure from Hollande’s predecessors who, if not defending France’s tormented past with Algeria, remained silent.
The Socialist president’s visit came as Algeria celebrates 50 years of independence from France, during which the two countries’ ties have been fraught with tension.
Hollande was travelling on Thursday to the western city of Tlemcen, the birthplace of Algerian wartime nationalist Messali Hadj.
Hollande said at the start of his visit that he and Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika are opening a “new era” with a strategic partnership among equals.
Large numbers of Algerians, and some political parties, have been seeking an apology from France for inequalities suffered by the population under colonial rule and for brutality during the war. However, Hollande said at a news conference Wednesday that he would make no apologies.
“History, even when it is tragic, even when it is painful for our two countries, must be told,” Hollande told lawmakers on Thursday. “For 132 years, Algeria was subjected to a profoundly unjust and brutal system” of colonization.
“I recognize here the suffering that colonization has inflicted on the Algerian people,” he added.
Hollande notably listed the sites of three massacres, including one at Setif where seven years ago Bouteflika compared French methods to those used by Nazi Germany and asked France to make a “gesture … to erase this black stain.”
The violence in Setif, 300 kilometres (186 miles) east of Algiers, began on May 8, 1945, apparently during a celebration of the end of World War II. Demonstrators unfurled Algerian flags, which were banned at the time by the French. As police began confiscating the flags, the crowds turned on the French, killing about two dozen of them.
The uprising spread and the response by French colonial troops grew increasingly harsh in the following weeks, including bombardments of villages by a French war ship. Algerians say some 45,000 people may have died. Figures in France put the number of Algerian dead at about 15,000 to 20,000.
Hollande and Bouteflika agreed to relaunch economic, strategic and cultural relations between the two countries on a new basis among equals. A new start must “be supported by a base,” Hollande said, and “this base is truth.”
“Nothing is built in secretiveness, forgetting, denial,” Hollande said.
A Declaration of Algiers was published late Wednesday saying that France and Algeria “are determined to open a new chapter in their relations” of “exceptional intensity” and spelling out political, human and economic goals.
France announced a deal for French automaker Renault to build a factory in Algeria with cars destined for all of Africa. The long-negotiated joint venture will be 49 per cent owned by Renault and 51 per cent by two Algerian companies, according to a statement by Renault, the first carmaker to establish production facilities in Algeria. The factory will be located outside Oran, a port city west of Algiers, and eventually expand to an automotive training centre.
The accord is one of about 15 agreements being signed during the visit, on topics ranging from culture to defence.
Hollande, who came to the French presidency in May, made an initial break with the French past by officially recognizing the deaths of Algerians at a 1961 pro-independence demonstration in Paris at the hands of French police. He referred to the “bloody repression” and paid homage to the victims of “this tragedy,” for which an official death toll has never been issued.
Elaine Ganley reported from Paris, Sylvie Corbet in Paris contributed to this report.