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Nervous France treads warily as protests grow in Algeria

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Paris (AFP)

Sat at a cafe terrace in northern Paris, 32-year-old Samira wonders why France, the self-proclaimed land of human rights, has seemed so feeble in its response to the protests against 82-year-old Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika.

The young Frenchwoman, who has family roots in the north African country like hundreds of thousands of others in France, has been scouring the news about the demonstrations and was hoping vainly for the French government to speak up.

"We get showered every day with talk about how we're the birthplace of human rights, but when we need to act, there's nothing," she said bitterly, comparing Paris' prudence when dealing with its former colony to its outspoken support for anti-government protesters in Venezuela.

Her friend Mehdi, a 28-year-old who fears that giving his surname will expose his family in Algeria to reprisals, wonders aloud: "Where is France?"

In the fortnight since protests broke out, France under President Emmanuel Macron has been playing it safe, wary of being seen to interfere in its former colony, which is of huge strategic importance.

"It's a real issue... It's taking up the president and the prime minister's time," one minister told AFP on condition of anonymity.

"Instability, questions surrounding security, immigration, economic issues, the feelings and behaviour of our Franco-Algerian compatriots: repercussions are numerous," the minister added.

A recent report in the L'Obs news magazine quoted a senior government official discussing which potential foreign crisis most worried 41-year-old Macron, even before the protests broke out.

"His nightmare is Algeria. It was the same for his predecessors," the official said, saying concern hinged on possible "serious instability" after the end of Bouteflika's rule which began in 1999.

The recent history of Libya, Algeria's neighbour, no doubt influences the president's bad dreams: chaos and civil war that have seen migrants flow north to Europe, while weapons trickle south helping destabilise the Sahel region.

The ailing Algerian leader has long been viewed in Paris as a source of stability and a bulwark against spreading Islamism -- despite concerns about human right abuses and corruption on his watch.

- Diplomatic minefield -

France's approach to the protests -- calling for calm and insisting Algerians must chose their own future -- is shaped by the bloody and still contested history of the two nations.

Paris ruled Algeria for more than a hundred years and used brutal methods to keep hold of the territory up to 1962, leaving deep scars and a toxic debate about the legacy of colonisation.

This shared past continues to give France clout -- through close economic, diplomatic and security ties, a shared language, as well as the large Algerian-origin diaspora in France, estimated to be 1.7 million-strong.

But it also means the French are vulnerable to charges of seeking to pull strings in the energy-rich nation, which is a major gas supplier to several European countries, particularly Spain.

"Either we speak up, and then the Algerians accuse us of interfering as the old coloniser, or we don't speak up and France is accused of supporting an anti-democratic regime," French historian Benjamin Stora told AFP.

"Either way it's a minefield."

Veteran foreign affairs specialist Dominique Moisi contrasted in a recent column how France once dared to impose its rule by force, but was now too timid to speak up.

"Before we wanted to do our best by Algerians, but without taking them into account. Now we almost stop ourselves from telling them about something that is obviously bad for them," he said, speaking of Bouteflika.

"How can we be both frank and respectful, find a language of truth that can -- that should -- exist between two equals? The answer isn't simple," he wrote in Les Echos newspaper.

- Diaspora pressure -

The French government rejects any suggestion of double standards when dealing with protests in Algeria and Venezuela, where Macron has backed protesters against President Nicolas Maduro and recognised opposition leader Juan Guaido.

"You really can't compare Venezuela and Algeria," junior foreign minister Jean-Baptiste Lemoyne said on Tuesday.

"In Venezuela, there's a humanitarian crisis, three million refugees, a president Maduro who is using force against his own people," he said.

France was "not indifferent" to what was happening in Algeria, but "we are not interfering," he added.

This weekend, young French-Algerians are again expected to hit the streets in Paris, Marseille and other cities to voice support for the protest movement in Algeria and, in some cases, demand France take a stronger position.

"It's a shared struggle between Algerians in Algeria and Algerians overseas. The diaspora also has a role to play in this transition, this construction of a new nation based on the rule of law," Samir Mellal from the Stand Up Algeria! collective told AFP in Paris.

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