Algeria cannot cure a colonial hangover

After the election: Dangerous liaison with France lingers on
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The Independent Online


In the overgrown pieds-noirs cemetery amid the slums of Belfort, eleven fresh mounds of earth tell the story of France's dangerous love affair with Algeria.

Each contains the body of a French nun or priest murdered by "Islamists" over the past two years, the flowers still alive on the grave of Odette Prevost of the Little Sisters of the Sacred Heart.

They buried her here a week ago, the last victim of Algeria's pre-election violence, between crumbling walls that embrace thousands of French bones, ancient men and women who died believing that Algerie francaise would never fade away, who were cut down in the 1914-18 war or shot by snipers in the 1954-62 war of Algerian independence.

Sister Prevost, the 35th French citizen murdered here in three years, had decided, so they said at her simple funeral, "to stay in Algeria in its time of trouble". Now, shot dead near her little home in Kouba, she will stay for ever.

France, it seems, can never quite shake off its fascination for this very foreign land, an affection that both tortures and humiliates Frenchmen and Algerians alike. Even as Sister Prevost was being lowered into her grave, her coffin covered in a Berber blanket and pelted with orange roses before the Algerian earth covered it for ever, a hysterical Algerian woman was standing up at Liamine Zeroual's last election rally to hurl contempt at France. Mr Zeroual was right to refuse a meeting with Jacques Chirac at the UN. "When Zeroual gave a slap to Jacques Chirac," she shrieked, "it was like Dey Hussein slapping the face of the French consul in 1827."

In fact, the Dey Hussein of Algiers hit the French consul in the face with a fly whisk - calling him "a wicked, faithless, idol-worshipping rascal" - and the act provoked the French invasion of 1830 and the long and bloody occupation which ended only 33 years ago. But the message was clear. Algeria was no more afraid of France now than it had been a century and a half ago. How dare France insult the nation she humiliated for so many years? How dare France dictate to Algeria? Because she does not wish her former colony to be successful?

If France's concern for Algeria can be fatal, Algeria's obsession with France is almost as lethal. Throughout the election campaign that gave Mr Zeroual his first mandate as President last week, the ghosts of Algeria's colonial era hovered over the candidates.

But what can France do to repair the shambles of its relationship with Algeria in the aftermath of last week's election? If it urges further dialogue with "Islamists", President Zeroual will claim that France is soft on "terrorism". If it supports any new military action by Mr Zeroual against the armed Islamist groups, it may provoke more bombs on French soil. And if it remains obstinately neutral, all sides in Algeria will accuse France of abandoning the country after a century and a half of colonial humiliation.

President Zeroual may have "slapped down" Mr Chirac at the UN but he has his own connections within the French administration. During his six months at French military college in Paris during the mid-Seventies, the future General Zeroual was a close acquaintance of a young French officer called Christian Quesnot. General Quesnot is now adviser on military affairs to Jacques Chirac (as he was to President Francois Mitterrand). Nor have Algerians failed to notice that Charles Pasqua, the French former interior minister whose distaste for fundamentalists rivalled that of the Algerian top brass, is again a welcome visitor at the Elysee Palace.

Will President Zeroual's electoral victory persuade France to give more support to the Algerian military? Or will Mr Chirac content himself with statesmanlike advice about the greater need for dialogue through strength?

"The French will never know how to treat us because they do not understand us," a young Algerian businesswoman claimed yesterday. "I watch French television every night - we all do - to find out how they are distorting the news from our country."