Since ancient Rome sacked Carthage, North Africa has kept a wary eye on its neighbors across the Mediterranean Sea. Today, that unease influences how many North Africans view French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who is in Algeria for a three-day state visit along with 150 business leaders and eight ministers.
Mr. Sarkozy arrived Monday in an effort to cool decades of tense relations and ink new business contracts with France's ex-colony, which gained independence in 1962, as well as pitch his idea for a Mediterranean Union, a regional community that would unite the 21 countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea.
The union, an initiative that Sarkozy proposed soon after becoming president, would focus on security, immigration, and environmental and cultural linkages among all countries, from Morocco to Malta to Israel, and help coordinate trade between this region and Europe. But his message in the region is reaching many skeptical ears, both those wary of a former colonial master as well as those concerned such a formal compact would simply open the door to European imports and guarantee hydrocarbon-hungry Europe a reliable supply of energy.
On Tuesday, Sarkozy did his part to quell much of the rancor between Algeria and France when he called France's colonial system "profoundly unjust." Addressing the colonial era and the brutal eight-year war of independence, he went partway toward satisfying the longtime demand of Algiers, and of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, for Paris to apologize for its actions as the colonial ruler.
But, he said, "I came to Algeria to build ... an exceptional partnership between our people, and that happens by way of contracts.... The past exists. The future is to be built."
He announced that more than $7.3 billion in contracts were to be signed Tuesday. He mentioned infrastructure projects, including a long-stalled subway for Algiers, but agreements regarding gas projects were also expected to be concluded.
These deals may add some fuel to Sarkozy's Mediterranean Union push.
North Africans "are on the lookout and they think they might be able to get things from it … they want to see tangible things," says Azzedine Layachi, associate professor of government and politics at St. John's University in New York City.
But prominent Algerian journalist Ihsan el Kadi says average Algerians don't give the still ill-defined union proposal much thought. But, Mr. Kadi says, it has the full attention of businessmen in the region, hungry for direct investment and willing to offer incentives to spur more trade across the Mediterranean, or the White Sea, as it's called in Arabic.
North Africa's last foray into grand pacts with Europe, the Barcelona process of 1995, was meant to create deeper ties and security between northern and southern Mediterranean countries through stronger trade and economic relations.
At the time, the process generated "a lot of optimism" but ultimately didn't result in many tangible benefits for North African countries, says Robert Parks, resident director of the American Institute for Maghreb Studies in Oran, Algeria.
Algeria will be one of the toughest negotiators in a union like what Sarkozy envisions because of its abundant natural gas that is needed in Europe. Neighbors like Tunisia and Morocco share a French colonial history but as protectorates. Being much poorer countries, they appear to welcome the idea of greater ties to the wealthy neighbors to the north.
"Algeria doesn't want to be dependent. The 132 years of colonialism has really ingrained this in people here," says Mr. Parks. That desire, he says, makes Algeria leery of agreements like the one proposed by Sarkozy.
Countries like Morocco, Tunisia, and Egypt, which are resource-starved and need trade ties to survive, are likely to be responsive to diplomatic overtures such as the union idea, analysts say.
"Tunisia is going to be in favor of any sort of cooperation. It's always at the cutting edge of international discourse," says Parks.
But aligning the interests of countries as diverse as those that ring the Mediterranean Sea into a single arrangement will be a significant hurdle. "For [the union] to extend from Morocco all the way to Turkey is hard to manage," says Layachi.
For the Arab countries, except Egypt and possibly Morocco, dealing with Israel will be off the table. Turkey frets the union is an end-run around its European Union aspirations.
France also appears to be interested in maintaining its heavy cultural and linguistic presence in Francophone countries, while those countries squirm with the uncomfortable mix of colonial and nationalist influences.
Those concerns, for now, are based on only suspicions. "Average people don't have a lot of interest in it also, because they don't know what a Mediterranean Union will look like," says Parks. "People don't even know enough about it to have a useful debate."