Paris mends fences with Algiers

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The chairman of the French parliament, Philippe Seguin, paid a flying visit to Algiers yesterday at the behest of President Jacques Chirac in a dramatic bid by France to end the two month stand-off in relations with Algeria.

The visit, kept secret until Mr Seguin's plane had landed safely in Algiers in mid-morning, was the first official contact between France and Algeria since Liamine Zeroual's convincing victory in the 16 November presidential election.

While the Elysee insisted throughout the day that the visit was a standard parliamentary visit made at the invitation of Mr Seguin's Algerian counterpart, it was clear that it was far from routine. Within an hour of arrival, Mr Seguin was taken to meet Mr Zeroual, confirming afterwards that he had conveyed a message from President Chirac.

In a clear sign of the visit's sensitivity, the Elysee denied that Mr Seguin was the bearer of any "official" message. "If the visit is a prelude to an improvement in French-Algerian relations that would be a good thing, but it is mainly a parliamentary visit of which the president has been informed."

Mr Seguin gave no details either of the contents of any message or of the substance of his meeting with Mr Zeroual. He stressed, however, that the two countries should "talk to each other, listen to each other and co-operate". On his return to Paris in the early evening, Mr Seguin - believed to be carrying a return message from Mr Zeroual - was taken straight to Mr Chirac.

Until yesterday France had had no official contact with Algeria since October, aside from an exchange of formal congratulations after Mr Zeroual's election victory. French officials were believed to have been taken aback less by Mr Zeroual's victory than by the size of the turn-out, which gave the election an unanticipated legitimacy. The turn-out was achieved despite terrorist threats by Islamic fundamentalist groups which boycotted the election

On 22 October, the difficult relationship between France and Algeria had erupted into open conflict after a planned meeting between Mr Chirac and Mr Zeroual during the UN General Assembly in New York was called off at the last moment.

Mr Chirac had agreed to the meeting - Algeria claimed that it had been fixed at France's request - in the face of strong opposition in France, where some saw it as indicating French support for Mr Zeroual (and therefore interfering in the election).

The cancellation - because, according to Mr Chirac, Mr Zeroual had insisted on the presence of television cameras at what was agreed as a strictly private occasion - was taken amiss by the Algerians, who accused France of "interfering in Algeria's internal affairs".