Chaos as Algeria votes in France

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There was chaos over the weekend as thousands of Algerians living in France turned out to vote in their country's presidential election. The election, which takes place in Algeria on Thursday, offers a choice of candidates - four - for the first time since Algeria became independent in 1962, but because of an opposition boycott, the turnout is regarded as crucial.

Seven parties and the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) have refused to take part, seeing the vote as an attempt by the military-backed regime to gain legitimacy following the cancelled parliamentary elections of 1991. In France, however, where there are more than 630,000 Algerian voters - many are dual nationals - participation appeared to be high.

In central Paris, queues started to form outside the consulate-general, in a side street close to the Arc de Triomphe, at 6am. By 9.30, there was the extraordinary sight of the vast expanse of the Champs-Elysees and its continuation, the Avenue de la Grande Armee, completely empty of people and traffic in preparation for the Armistice Day ceremonies, and to one side, a dense and noisy crush of would-be Algerian voters, several thousand strong, waiting impatiently under the watchful eye of the riot police.

These scenes were repeated at many of the 22 other voting centres across France. In Marseilles and Lyons, dozens of people were injured or fainted in the crush. In Nice, order broke down and voting was suspended for three hours while security was reinforced. In Lille, consular officials and the Red Cross distributed mineral water.

Most voters were middle-aged and elderly men, but there was a smattering of younger people, some of whom went away in disgust at the poor organisation. The average waiting time in Paris was five hours.

It had originally been planned to spread the voting in France across six days, but two weeks ago the French authorities summarily reduced the number of days to three, citing security precautions following recent bomb attacks for which the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) has claimed responsibility. The next, and last, day for voting in France is Thursday.

Since the fracas last month over President Jacques Chirac's cancelled meeting with President Liamine Zeroual of Algeria at the UN, France has taken a detached approach to the election. All campaigning in France was banned, and publicity was limited to emigre newspapers, radio stations and Algerian satellite television.

Algeria's consul-general in Paris, Zourir Messani, said his first thought on seeing so many people was ``joy that so many people wanted to vote, but how are we going to cope?''

He said that there had been ``eight months of work'', but no organised mobilisation in the form of transport to polling stations.

He thought that many Algerians had decided to vote not only to exercise their right for the first time, but to show French people, shocked by the bombs, that Algerians were ``law-abiding people who respected the democratic process''.