France's Macron seeks warmer ties in former colony Algeria

French President Emmanuel Macron (C) meets Algerians in the street in Algiers on December 6, 2017. PHOTO | AFP 

French President Emmanuel Macron on Wednesday made his first official visit to Algeria, announcing that he came as a "friend" despite France's historically prickly relationship with its former colony.

Ties between Paris and Algiers have defrosted in recent years, a half-century after French forces brutally cracked down on independence fighters in a 1954-1962 war that left some 1.5 million Algerians dead.

Macron, the first French president to be born after the war, told news website Tout sur l'Algerie that he was "ready" to see his country hand back the skulls of Algerian resistance fighters killed in the 1850s, which are held at the Musee de l'Homme in Paris.

Algerian and French academics have long campaigned for the return of the 37 skulls, a symbolic hangover from France's 130-year occupation of Algeria.

The future

President Macron arrived in Algiers under bright sunshine on Wednesday, after stressing that he came as "a friend of Algeria, a constructive partner who wants to strengthen our links".

"I know the history, but I am not a hostage of the past," he told Algerian newspapers El Watan and El Khabar by phone ahead of his visit.

"But from now on, I hope... that we will turn together towards the future."

President Macron was welcomed at Algiers airport by Senate speaker Abdelkader Bensalah, Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia and Foreign minister Abdelkader Messahel.

He later laid a wreath at a monument in central Algiers to those killed in the war, and walked through the centre of the capital, talking with passers-by.

Armed groups

President Macron was scheduled to visit Algeria's ageing President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who has rarely appeared in public since suffering a stroke in 2013 that has affected his speech and mobility.

During his election campaign in May, the French leader called his country's colonial history a "crime against humanity", prompting criticism from some in France and praise from President Bouteflika.

But on a recent trip to West Africa, President Macon called for "neither denial nor repentance", stressing that "we cannot remain trapped in the past".

Paris is keen to build ties with Algeria, a key player in the fight against armed groups in the Sahel, and the region's crises are likely to figure in meetings with officials.

The Sahel, which stretches from Senegal to Sudan, has sunk into lawlessness since chaos engulfed Libya in 2011, Islamists overran northern Mali in 2012, and Boko Haram rose up in northern Nigeria. (AFP)

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