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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. 

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Last May, Bouteflika said in a speech aimed at young Algerians that “my generation has had its day,” and called on youths to assume leadership.

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It remains unclear how easy that might be. Political parties tend to favor veterans over younger members, say analysts, while younger officers in the powerful military are an unknown quantity.

“You’ll have a young generation of leaders,” says Jon Marks, an Algeria expert and chairman of Cross-Border Information, a British risk assessment firm. “Unless there’s a radical change, they will be schooled in the traditions of Algerian politics.”

Osmane, meanwhile, hopes to help empower a different sort of leader. It was while working at a Paris bank and starting a doctorate in economics at the Sorbonne that he launched Medafco in 2007, a business consultancy aimed at Algeria’s diaspora.

“I had worked at an Algerian bank and realized that banks here had at least $30 billion of surplus liquidity – extra money that they hadn’t managed to invest,” he says.

One problem is thickets of bureaucracy and corruption that surround business life in Algeria, he says. Another is potential entrepreneurs who don’t know the ropes.

That’s where Medafco comes in. The consultancy is run from a villa in Ain Benian, a seaside suburb of Algiers. Osmane has built a team of lawyers, academics, and accountants, and reached out to Algerians abroad.

“We’re not saying come back to be patriotic – it’s come back to make money,” he says. “Because if you’re making money, you’re creating jobs.”

Osmane’s vision would run counter to years of Algerians looking north – not south – to realize their dreams.

France remains Algeria’s top economic partner and is home to around 1.6 million Frenchmen of Algerian descent following an influx of migrant workers during the 1960s and '70s, according to official figures from 1999. Today, however, the door has all but slammed shut.

Discrimination

Concern for jobs in a sluggish economy and fears that Islam clashes with French values of laicité – exclusion of religion from public life – have soured France on immigration and help fuel what many minorities call discrimination against them.

“Discrimination is illegal, but it’s real,” says Arun Kapil, a political science professor at the Institut Catholique de Paris. But compared to past decades, “there’s much more awareness and discussion of it today.”

The issue was explored in the 2010 comedy film “L’Italien.” Dino – real name Mourad – has built a plush life selling Maseratis by hiding his Algerian roots. Then he tries to observe Ramadan – fasting, prayer, and sexual abstinence - in secret, with hilarious results.

Statistics paint a more sobering picture. French-born children of parents from outside the European Union suffer 24.2 percent unemployment – nearly three times the rate for children of French-born parents, said a report last month by France’s High Council on Integration.

The far-right Front National party wants to end immigration almost entirely. In May, its presidential candidate Marine Le Pen captured 17.9 percent of the vote in the first round of two-round elections won by François Hollande, from the Socialist Party.

Mr. Hollande’s election, plus a Socialist Party victory in legislative elections last month, could see France softening its policy on immigration, Mr. Kapil says.

In Algeria, Osmane sees political change as key to convincing Algerians a reason to stay home – or return.

“There is a gap between young people and old leaders,” he says. He wants the government to invest more on educating young entrepreneurs. “Algeria’s greatest resource is not oil, it’s people.”

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