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Africa

Algeria celebrates 50 years of independence - France keeps mum

media The musical The Hero kicked off Algeria's independence celebrations Leila Beratto / RFI

Algeria celebrated 50 years of independence on Thursday with musicals and razzamatazz. But there were no official events to mark the anniversary of the end of the Algerian war in France where bitterness over the defeat lasts to this day.

Algeria’s celebrations were kicked off when President Abdelaziz Bouteflika attended a historical musical The Hero at the seaside resort of Sidi Fredj, the site of the landing that started the French invasion in 1830.

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Featuring 800 actors, singers and ballet dancers and choreographed by Lebanese Abdel Halim Caracalla, it was broadcast live in national television.

That was followed by fireworks, organised by a Chinese company, across the country.

But, while there was consensus on honouring the dead of the independence struggle, feelings were more mixed about the state of the country today or its history since independence.

From a revolutionary people’s republic that was the focus of the hopes of anti-colonial and anti-racist movements worldwide, Algeria has passed through military dictatorship, Berber uprising, Islamist insurgency, limited democracy and economic crisis (see timelines).

Despite oil and gas reserves, the statistics of poverty remain grim:

  • Population: 37 million, 70 per cent under 35;
  • Unemployment: 20 per cent, according to the IMF;
  • Inflation: 6.4 per cent in April;
  • Falling oil and gas prices may mean a loss of 16 billion euros in a year.

Although there riots and strikes last year, there was not uprising during the Arab Spring. Nevertheless, Bouteflika has promised some reforms.

In France there has been no official recognition of the anniversary, unless you count an exhibition at the Invalides military museum which features the work of cartoonist Jacques Ferrandez and artefacts, some of which the Algerians would like back.

France has resisted calls to hand over maps, books and the objects, some of which belonged to 19th-century resistance leader Abdel Kader.

The latest offer, to make copies of all the material if Algiers drops its demand for restitution, is “a little ungenerous”, according to Matt Connelly, an American historian who lives in Algeria.

Even press coverage has been limited and tended to the "look what that got you" in the weight it gives to current discontent as opposed to historical record.

And that record is still the subject of bitter debate.

There is no agreement on how many Algerians died during French colonisation, although historians believe it was nearly a million, or in the war of independence.

Most historians put the independence war’s death toll at 300,000-400,000, Connelly told RFI, but the ruling National Liberation Front (FLN) still claims a higher figure.

“The number itself is political now,” he says. “Because the whole basis for legitimacy of the government in Algeria is that it led this successful revolution to overthrew foreign rule.”

In France, on the other hand, much emphasis is put on the FLN’s execution of French soldiers, collaborators and dissidents and there has been strong resistance to admitting how ruthless the French military was.

Torture “was systematic” during the war, Connelly says. But, then again, “There were people being tortured in Algeria long before the war began in 1934.”

For France the Algerian question is not exclusively historical.

The largest group of immigrants to France is Algerian. Many of their sons and daughters are now French citizens, living in deprived areas on the outskirts of big cities. The riots that broke out 2005 were a sign of their feeling that France had failed to deliver its promises of equal citizenship in terms of jobs, living conditions and respect.

That discontent, along with an increasing identification with Islam and the booing of France’s national team at matches with Algeria, have raised hackles on the French right, as could be seen by the score of the far-right Front National in the last presidential election and the adoption of many of its themes by incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy’s UMP.

The presence of about 800,000 pieds noirs, colonists who fled Algeria at independence, has also changed French politics.

Some of them still resent the loss of French Algeria and, although many voted Communist while in Algeria, they have been a factor in the rise of the right and even the far right in parts of the south of France.

It may be a ling time before a French head of state gets to sample the delights of The Hero or be wowed by the independence day fireworks.

Timeline: Algeria 1830-1989

Timeline: Algeria 1991-2012

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