France Turns New Attention To a Turbulent Ex-Colony

French, Algerian presidents to meet and seek a path to peace, democracy

AFTER months of keeping Algeria at arm's length, France is extending a public hand to the embattled military-backed regime.

This week French President Jacques Chirac agreed to meet Algerian President Liamine Zeroual in New York later this month - the first time French and Algerian heads of state have met since Algeria's military canceled 1992 legislative elections that Islamic opponents appeared poised to win.

On Wednesday, French authorities also reestablished maritime links with Algeria, which France broke after the hijacking of a French airliner by Algeria's Armed Islamic Group (GIA) in Algiers last December.

These gestures of support come on the eve of a Nov. 16 presidential vote in Algeria expected to give President Zeroual's government new claims to legitimacy. Some 40,000 people have been killed in Algeria since 1993 in battles between the military-backed government and armed Islamic opponents.

In France, the opposition Socialist Party was quick to condemn the Chirac-Zeroual meeting. "Jacques Chirac should not meet Liamine Zeroual," said Gerard Fuchs, Socialist spokesman for international affairs, in a statement Monday. Such a meeting signals that Mr. Chirac "believes more in a military solution than in a political one," he added.

French leaders insist that their policy is one of "noninterference" in the internal affairs of Algeria, their former colony. The only possible solution to Algeria's "problem" is political, "based on a dialogue with all those in Algeria who reject violence," said Chirac, as he announced his intention to meet with Zeroual. "An essential next step" will be for Algeria to hold "free and democratic" legislative elections as soon as possible, he added.

France backs Algeria with $1.2 billion in annual aid and has been a leading advocate for the Algerian government with international bankers and the European Union.

"More than ever, while the situation in Algeria remains at the heart of our preoccupations, the stability and development of the Maghreb [Northwest Africa] must be considered a priority," Chirac told a meeting of French ambassadors on Aug. 31.

Next month, France will propose a "pact for stability" for the Mediterranean region at a conference in Barcelona, Spain, between leaders of Mediterranean and European countries.

An agreement to finance that pact with more European aid will be a tough sell for the French. The European Union now sends more than $6 billion to Mediterranean nations, about one-fifth of what it funnels to Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. But many member states are grappling with their own high public deficits and persistent unemployment.

"Europe is now looking to manage its Mediterranean frontier in the logic of security and containment: to prevent people in the south from leaving [for Europe]," researcher Bernard Ravenel told the annual meeting of the French Institute of International Relations last month. "There are no new common projects of economic development."

STRONGER ties to the Mediterranean may also prove a hard sell in France. In a poll published yesterday in the daily Le Monde, some 50 percent of the French polled cited Algeria as the country that most threatens peace in the world.

On Saturday, an unconfirmed statement by Algeria's GIA claimed responsibility for a wave of terrorist bombings in France.

The attacks, which have killed seven since July 25, were to punish France for its support of the Algerian government, according to a statement faxed to a news agency in Cairo. The statement also called on the French president to convert to Islam and pledged to carry the jihad, or holy war, "into the heart of France and its largest cities."

Algerian filmmaker Ali Akiki, now living in Paris, says that the GIA's claim of responsibility for the Paris bombings should be no surprise. "For a month, they've been putting bombs in the center of Algerian cities and towns. It's a blind terrorism, and it shows they're deeply divided and no longer capable of confronting Algerian security services," he says.

Mr. Akiki, like most other Algerians living in France, deplores the GIA violence but is also troubled by the Sept. 29 shootout between Algerian-born French bombing suspect Khaled Kelkal and French police. The scene, broadcast widely on French television, showed police shooting the suspect while he was on the ground. A controversial segment of film, edited out of the broadcast, includes a voice yelling, "Finish him!"

Kelkal "was on the ground, and they shot him like a dog," Akiki says. "The great majority of Algerians in France don't support terrorism, but the fact that he was killed like that touches all of us as a kind of humiliation."

Severine Labat, whose new book, "The Algerian Islamists," was published this week, says that French authorities underestimated the impact of the television images of the shootout in Algeria and among Algerian immigrants in France.

"For some, Khaled Kelkal has become a hero," she says. "For others, his killing sends the message that an Arab life is not worth very much in France."

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