Mixed Message From Paris to Algiers: Iron Barricades and $1 Billion in Aid

High-level French visit to Algeria is marred by an assassination

Iron barricades partially block the entrance to the Paris office of Air Algeria, Algeria's national airline. Passengers must pass two security checkpoints to buy tickets on the only airline in Europe that still flies to Algeria.

But the barriers are not deterring France's Algerian community from snatching up some 240,000 seats on flights to Algeria for the summer vacation season.

Nor are passengers put off by Algeria's civil conflict, which has claimed tens of thousands of lives in the last three years. "I'm not worried," says Ali, a student whose family lives in a suburb of Algiers. "I go home for vacation every year and just keep my head down."

But what does worry Algerians is mounting evidence that their country is becoming isolated from the rest of the world - especially from France. There are some 800,000 Algerians and dual nationals living in France, 250,000 in the Paris region.

After a December 1994 hijacking of a French airliner by Algeria's Armed Islamic Group (GIA), Air France suspended all flights to Algeria. Other European airlines followed suit. A series of terrorist bombings in Paris last summer, which French authorities say aimed to punish France for its support of Algeria's military-backed government, proved that Algeria's domestic war has taken a toll in France.

Just before last year's summer exodus to Algeria began, French authorities tried to move Air Algeria to an isolated cargo-charter hanger for security reasons. Air Algeria refused to move, insisting that the new site was not suitable for passengers. As a result, flights from Paris were canceled. Passengers now must travel to Lyon or Marseilles, hours from Paris by train, to catch flights to Algeria.

Before the recent crackdown, France was granting 1,500 visas a day to Algerians to visit France. Now that flow has been reduced to a trickle.

"We're now seeing one visa granted for every 100 requests. Doctors are refused visas they need for their work, and others get it to come to France and buy caramels. It makes no sense, and our clientele is directly affected by this," says Saleha Houari, a spokesman for Air Algeria.

In addition, diplomatic relations between the two nations were strained after a meeting between French President Jacques Chirac and Algerian President Liamine Zeroual was canceled last October.

President Zeroual's victory in November elections paved the way for a more public sign of support from France for the Algerian president. General Zeroual won 61 percent of the vote in the nation's first presidential elections since 1962.

A visit to Algeria last week by French Foreign Minister Herve de Charette, the first such visit by a top French diplomat in more than three years, was to have marked a "new beginning" for French-Algerian relations. "We must develop serene, extensive, and solid relations with Algeria," he said.

But the visit was rocked by the assassination of Msgr. Pierre Claverie, the bishop of Oran, hours after meeting with Mr. de Charette to discuss security for the remaining French clergy in Algeria. French clergy are highly symbolic targets in Algeria. For many French, the clergy represent the best of France's colonial "civilizing mission" in the world. In May, seven French Trappist monks were kidnapped and subsequently murdered by the GIA.

The bishop of Oran was an even more prominent target. A dual French-Algerian national, he was known for his social work in poor neighborhoods and his efforts to build understanding between Roman Catholics and Islamic groups in Algeria. In an interview a day before his death, he warned that there was "a danger of redoubling the violence, or at least mounting a spectacular attack to try to undermine the positive effects" of the French foreign minister's visit to Algeria.

France condemned the Aug. 1 attack and insisted that it would not derail diplomatic efforts to improve relations. The murder "only reinforces the determination of all those who reject violence and hate," says French Prime Minister Alain Juppe.

"Whether we like it or not, Algeria is a major partner of France," de Charette says.

France sends Algeria more than $1 billion in annual aid and has been Algeria's leading spokesman with international bankers and aid donors. French officials worry that further deterioration of Algeria's economy or political situation could prompt a flood of illegal immigrants to France, where unemployment topped 12.5 percent last week.

"The message of the killers couldn't be clearer: France is asked to no longer support the legally elected Algerian president, Mr. Zeroual; she is invited to give in to Islamic extremists. In short, she is summoned to cease being France ... to cease voicing her support wherever in the world, to return to the stove and watch over the soup," writes commentator Franz-Olivier Giesbert in the conservative daily Le Figaro.

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