Sacrifices from colonial past expose a bitter French divide

The commemoration this weekend of the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Provence is being marred by a political row within the French government that has highlighted unfinished business in the country's relations with its former colonies.

The most controversial of the guests, President Abdelaziz Bouteflika of Algeria, is accused of betraying pledges he made before his country's independence in the 1960s. President Laurent Gbagbo of Ivory Coast - where France currently has a role in brokering an end to the civil war - has snubbed his hosts. And there is pressure for the Djibouti head of state, Ismael Omar Guelleh, to be summoned by a judge if he attends the ceremonies to mark the sacrifice of thousands of colonial troops in the Second World War.

The French veterans' minister, Hamlaoui Mekachera, claims Mr Bouteflika's invitation is part and parcel of moves to improve relations with Algeria and says "there should be no confusion between this page of history - which we wrote together in 1944 - and other, later events, however painful they may be".

On 15 August 1944, 256,000 men of the African army, led by French General Jean-Marie de Lattre de Tassigny, landed in Provence immediately behind the Allied troops of US General Alexander Patch. Under the codename Anvil Dragoon, they linked up with the troops of the Normandy landings on 12 September at Montbard near the Swiss border. Historians say the 400,000-strong army - which also fought in Africa - was often used as cannon fodder but played a crucial role in liberating France. In the Provence landings alone, it lost at least 40,000 black Africans and "French north Africans" - settlers and indigenous Tunisians, Moroccans and Algerians.

Last week, 60 right-wing MPs protested to the French Foreign Minister, Michel Barnier, over the invitation extended to Mr Bouteflika who, they said, had "always ignored and dismissed the memory" of the victims of Algerian independence. Foremost among these victims are the harkis - members of an indigenous Algerian militia which fought on the French side during the country's independence war. Repatriated to France after the war, they and their descendants are still viewed in Algeria as collaborators and do not have the right to buy property.

The Tunisian President, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, has let it be known that he will attend the commemorations because "our role in the liberation of France gave us the taste of freedom and inspired our own independence movements". But President Gbagbo. of Ivory Coast, sees "no reason to celebrate a brotherhood in arms" with France. He has been accused by the French media of ordering human rights abuses.

President Guelleh of Djibouti has been named by a French judge as a potential suspect in the alleged killing in 1995 in Djibouti of a French magistrate, Bernard Borrel.

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