A tour of North Africa or a single visit to any country of the region by a serving French president always comes under scrutiny on both sides of the Mediterranean to detect any sign of support for any particular country to the detriment of the other. In this context, French President Nicolas Sarkozy's visit to the area, which begins on 10 July with a stopover in Algiers, has already been the subject of controversy.
Nicolas Sarkozy will postpone his visit to Morocco which had due to take place after his talks in Algiers and Tunis. This came as no surprise for observers of the relationships between France and its former colonies. The Moroccan news agency said that the French president's stopover in Rabat had been postponed to October at the last moment at the request of the Moroccan authorities for unspecified "scheduling reasons". However, the Moroccan newspaper Almassae on 7 July quoted "sources" as saying that one of the reasons for postponing the visit was that Sarkozy "had decided to put his visit to Algeria and Tunisia before Morocco which considers itself closer to France than any of the other Arab Maghreb countries".
The Algerian daily newspaper El Khabar, for its part, said the visit to Morocco had been postponed "due to a change in France's traditional stance towards the Western Sahara issue". The paper said "the entourage" of King Mohammed VI told the new French president they were "convinced" that Paris's new policy, under Sarkozy, was considered "a betrayal" of the approach adopted by French presidents for decades "which used to reflect Paris's keenness to support Morocco's sovereignty" over the Western Sahara.
The Algerian newspaper El Watan asked on 7 July "whether the Moroccan authorities have not digested the fact that Sarkozy begins his visit with Algeria, seeing in this order a deliberate choice?" "It is true that in the past, the royal palace had enjoyed privileged links with the Elysee Palace, and the friendship between President Chirac and [the late] King Hasan, and later his son Mohammed VI, was clear".
France's links with Algeria have always been described as a "love-hate relationship" in both countries, due to their long colonial past, the impact of the large Algerian community in France and the strong cultural and economic ties between the two countries. So even if, officially, bilateral ties between France and Algeria, including cooperation in the nuclear field, and France's plans for a Mediterranean Union are expected to be high on the agenda of Sarkozy's visit to Algiers on 10 July, there are fears that the visit may be overshadowed by his opposition to "repentance" for the colonial period.
The French ambassador to Algeria, Bernard Bajolet, has played down these fears. The fact that the president rejects the idea of "repentance" for France's behaviour in Algeria during the colonial period is no obstacle to a "special partnership" between the two countries, the French daily newspaper Le Monde quoted Bajolet as telling Algerian journalists, in a report published on 15 June. The ambassador added that the French president "will surprise the Algerians (as) he has already surprised the French", and that the two presidents "have agreed on the method and objectives of the special partnership", Le Monde reported.
France's colonial past was one of the issues which overshadowed a previous visit by Sarkozy to Algeria, from 13 to 14 November 2006, French media reported at the time.
France Info radio said the then interior minister was given a "rather cool" welcome as people remembered the row over a 2005 French law which mentioned the "positive role of the French presence overseas, especially in North Africa". The controversial phrase was removed after protests both at home and abroad. The radio added that in Algeria the French interior minister was mostly known for using the expression "riff-raff" to refer to delinquents in poor French suburbs with large immigrant communities.
"Algiers is always a high-risk trip for a French politician, and there is no country with which France has as decisive, as important but also as difficult a relationship," French 24-hour news channel La Chaine Info (LCI) television commented at the time. LCI said Mr Sarkozy "tried to calm things down" during his visit by paying tribute to the Algerians who died in the war of independence.
In another "gesture of goodwill" reported by LCI, Mr Sarkozy announced that the process of issuing visas to Algerians would be speeded up, and in return Algeria promised that it would pass on a list of suspects to Paris to help France in the fight against terrorism. "The Algiers press, which was very sceptical after the minister's arrival, has welcomed these examples of progress," LCI said.
Only one Algerian newspaper has been observed to comment on Sarkozy's visit to Algiers. L'Expression said Sarkozy's latest visit "is awaited with curiosity but also with hope. Curiosity to the degree that everyone is going to watch for what Sarkozy is going to say about his planned Mediterranean Union". "There is hope, extraordinarily, of calmer relations between Algeria and France and thus more fruitful ones, to the degree that, knowing the positions - which might appear extreme - that have been defended by the former chairman of the Union for a Popular Movement [UMP], it might then be easier to address the essential point, which consists of the building of this special partnership that Algerians and French are devoutly calling for", notes the paper.
There is little to be said about the relations between Tunis and Paris. Tunisia is regarded by France as a model of economic development in the Arab world. Under President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the country has enjoyed "political stability" and women are among the most emancipated in the Arab world. That is why France seems to turn a blind eye to reports of Tunisia's poor human rights record and its clampdown on civil and press freedoms. President Sarkozy's talks with his Tunisian counterpart are expected to focus on strengthening bilateral relations and France's plans for a Mediterranean Union.
Source: BBC Monitoring research in English 9 Jul 07