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Fifty years after Algerian freedom, youths take fresh look at France (+video)

Younger Algerians have a more pragmatic approach to France, Algeria's former colonial master. They view engagement with the West as a necessity, especially for creating jobs through investment. 

By Correspondent / July 5, 2012

Algerian actors reenact the Algerian war against France during the celebration of fifty years of independence from France, which occupied Algeria for 132 years, in Algiers on Thursday, July 5.

Louafi Larbi/Reuters

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Algiers, Algeria

Like many people in the city of Souk Ahras, in eastern Algeria, Kamel Osmane’s grandfather supported the war. He baked bread for the guerrillas and hid weapons in his bakery. Before long, he was arrested by the French.

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“We’re better off today in that we’re no longer ‘les indigènes’ -- we’re independent,” says Mr. Osmane, a business consultant in Algiers. “But society is in crisis, and governance must change.”

On Thursday, Algerians marked 50 years since their country won independence from France, ending decades of colonial rule. A key question now is what role awaits young Algerians like Mr. Osmane as aging leaders enter their twilight and a generation that has a much more pragmatic view of how their country should interact with France, and with the Western world, starts to take over. The Algeria this generation will inherit is a work in progress, in apparent mid-step between the socialist anticolonialism of decades past and a turn toward free-market economics and partnership with Western countries. 

France and Algeria remain closely linked by, language, migration, and a complex history. For Osmane, a Paris-educated business consultant, the country that tortured his grandfather is also the one that helped offer him a path to achievement.

“I’d have liked to study in the UK or US, but it’s more complicated,” he says. “France for us is the gateway to the West.”

How Algeria has made its peace with France, and dealt with the common problems of North African countries -- youth unemployment, poor government service, and growing economic frustration -- is worthy of study. The West came to Algeria in 1827 when the French consul and the Dey of Algiers met to discuss French debts to Algerian merchants. Tempers rose, and the Dey struck the consul with a fly-whisk. France blockaded Algiers, the Dey fired on a French ship, and in 1830, France invaded.

A century later, Algeria was officially part of a greater France through which the Mediterranean was said to flow like the Seine through Paris. But Algerians remained second-class to thousands of European inhabitants.

Revolt was launched in 1954 by the National Liberation Front (FLN). Many Algerians backed independence, others France. Both sides descended to depths of cruelty. Osmane’s grandfather was beaten and electrocuted during eight years in jail.

In 1962, Frenchmen weary of war voted overwhelmingly to set Algeria loose. Most European residents – and some loyalist Algerians - embarked for France.

In Algeria, a power struggle among FLN leaders was followed by one-party rule until 1989. In 1992, the country slid into a decade of civil war after the Army cancelled elections that an Islamist party looked set to win. Calm has slowly returned since the 1999 election of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika.

However, many Algerians say their graying leaders – Mr. Bouteflika is 75 – have failed to use the country’s oil wealth to improve public services and bring down high youth unemployment. Around three quarters of Algerians are under 35.

“The generation that has led since independence were young when they came to power,” Osmane says. “Today Algeria looks like an image of them growing old.”

How easily can younger generation take over?

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