French president wants new era with Algeria

French President Francois Hollande announced a new era with Algeria on Wednesday - a strategic partnership among equals - during a state visit to this North African nation that was once a prized colony in the French empire.

The Socialist president's visit comes as Algeria celebrates 50 years of independence following a brutal seven-year war that ended 132 years of colonial rule.

French ties with the gas-rich nation have been fraught with tension since its independence in 1962. 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.

"What I want is a strategic partnership between France and Algeria, treating each other as equals, that lets us enter this new era," Holland said at a news conference after a meeting with President Abdelaziz Bouteflika.

French officials had said the two-day trip was aimed at establishing mutually beneficial economic ties with Algeria to replace a relationship strained by a bitter past.

Hollande said this would allow France and Algeria to not only turn a page but "to write so many others."

Algeria, where unemployment among the young soars, is a land of promise for French industry. France is Algeria's No. 1 trading partner but Algeria is only fourth on France's list.

Hollande officially announced an accord for the French automaker Renault to build a factory in Algeria with cars destined for all of Africa. The joint venture will be 49 percent owned by Renault and 51 percent 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 center.

The accord is one of about 15 agreements being signed during the visit, ranging from cultural to defense.

A common statement is to be issued by Hollande and Bouteflika, the contents of which were the subject of intense diplomatic discussions in recent months. Hollande said a document spelling out the new partnership would also be signed.

The French president made an abrupt departure from the playbook in October. He broke the official French silence over the massacre of Algerians by French police during a pro-independence demonstration in Paris in 1961. Some bodies were found floating in the Seine River in what Hollande acknowledged was a "bloody repression," paying homage to the victims of "this tragedy."

"The Republic recognizes these acts with clarity," Hollande said, 51 years after an event for which an official death toll has never emerged.

He was chastised for the statement by political foes on the French right.

Algeria, which has fought an Islamist insurgency for well over a decade, has also been an important partner for France and other western nations in the war on terrorism. Among topics Hollande discussed with Bouteflika is the fragile situation in Mali, where a branch of Algeria-based al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb and other radical Islamists control the north.

France has led a plan for an intervention by African forces to recapture northern Mali, with logistical help from the West. Algeria, which shares a hard-to-police desert border with Mali and could be swept into the fray, has pressed instead for political dialogue.

Hollande, continuing a gradual softening of the French approach, said the two sides agree on political dialogue "but only with movements that are separating from terrorism," a reference to the pro-independence Tuaregs in Mali being pushed aside by radical Islamists.

Hollande is not the first French president to try to lay a new basis for relations with Algeria. Four French leaders in succession have come here to seek a new start. A friendship treaty proposed by President Jacques Chirac, who left office in 2007, never got off the drawing board due to enmities.

Asked why things can be different this time, Hollande said that this time "the method has changed" and actions will be replaced by words.

He said, however, that he will not apologize for France's "colonial system" during his visit.

"I did not come here ... to seek repentance or (make) excuses. I speak what is the truth, what is history," he said.

"I'm not here to open the closets. I'm here so that we can build a new house together," Hollande said. "The most important subject is the future."

He said he has invited Bouteflika, 75, for a state visit to France. Next year Hollande will visit neighboring Morocco and Tunisia, also former French colonies.

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Elaine Ganley reported from Paris. Sylvie Corbet in Paris contributed to this report.

Enlargephoto

French President Francois Hollande, left, and Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika stand in a car as they drive through Algiers Wednesday, Dec.19, 2012. Hollande arrived Wednesday on a state visit to Algeria, hoping for a clean start in relations after a half-century of tensions with this North Africa nation, once the French empire's most prized colony. (AP Photo/Anis Belghoul)