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Algeria Vote Sends Shock Waves Through France

June 14, 1990|RONE TEMPEST | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PARIS — The unexpected victory of an Islamic fundamentalist party in Algerian elections sent shock waves Wednesday throughout a political establishment in France that still has strong cultural and emotional ties to the former French colony.

The victory of the Islamic Salvation Front, created only 15 months ago after massive anti-government riots in Algiers and other cities, also promises to have profound impact on the French political scene, where the growing extreme right-wing National Front Party has made a major issue out of Arab immigrants coming from former French colonies in North Africa.

"I consider it as one of the most important events of the decade," National Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen said of the Algerian election. In a telephone interview Wednesday, he described the victory by the Islamic Salvation Front as a "detonator" that will likely lead more Algerians to leave for France.

"There is already a strong concentration of Algerians in France," Le Pen said. "If there is trouble in Algeria, many more will try to come here. The vast majority of French are opposed to any increase in immigration."

The main concerns expressed by French and French-Algerian people interviewed after the election results were announced Wednesday are fears that the newly powerful Islamic fundamentalist movement in Algeria will spread to neighboring countries of Morocco and Tunisia in the North African Maghreb and even to the Muslim population inside France itself.

Others stated fears that the French language will lose its toehold in Africa to the Arabic tongue embraced by the fundamentalists.

"It's a terrible blow to Francophony," said Mouloud Chalah, 39, president of Radio Beur, a station aimed at the French-speaking Algerian population here.

But even stronger, perhaps, is the fear that France will lose touch with its former colony, which has figured so prominently in the literature of Albert Camus and other writers. What India was to the British Empire, Algeria was to France. The United States' painful withdrawal from Vietnam was, in some ways, minor compared to the emotional French severance from its favorite colony in 1962.

As a result, the immediate French reaction to the election results, although they concerned only municipal and provincial posts, was funereal, a remembrance of things past.

"The sun rose over a different North Africa on Wednesday when Algerian authorities recognized the clear victory of the Islamacists," the influential Paris newspaper Le Monde editorialized on the front page of its Wednesday afternoon editions. It continued:

"For the first time, a movement about which we know nothing with respect to its attitude toward France, will be associated with governing public affairs. The symbolism is so strong that one has a tendency to forget that these are only local elections."

Officially, French President Francois Mitterrand, speaking at a press conference on the island of Mauritius, expressed hope that France will continue to have good relations with its former colony.

"A people living in a sovereign state are free to make their own choices," Mitterrand said. "We cannot discuss the wishes of the French people with regard to Algeria. That is for the Algerians."

Privately, however, Mitterrand aides said they are concerned that the results will exacerbate popular concerns about the growth of the Muslim population in France and bolster the National Front.

According to official statistics, 785,000 Algerian immigrants live in France. However, that figure does not include an estimated 2 million other French residents, the beurs, who are of Algerian origin. In addition, about 300,000 to 1 million Algerians reside in France illegally.

Coupled with the 1.3 million former French colonialists in Algeria, the so-called pieds noirs (black feet) who now live in France, the Algerian-linked population forms an especially sensitive part of French society.

"When someone sneezes in Algeria, France catches a cold," commented Omar Mokhtari, editor of a bi-weekly Algerian newspaper published in Paris.

Like many other Algerians living in France, including prominent members of the Islamic religious community, Mokhtari said Wednesday that he is "astonished and concerned" over the fundamentalist victory.

"It poses a peril for Algeria and for Algerians in France," Mokhtari said. The biggest fear, he said, is that the results will boost the already increasing political status of the National Front and Le Pen, who as a paratrooper fought against Algerian independence.

Recent polls have shown the National Front being supported by 18% of the French, an all-time high for the political party that includes royalist and anti-Semitic elements.

A measure of the impact of the Algerian vote may come as early as Sunday, when a National Front candidate faces a Socialist Party opponent in a highly publicized runoff election in Villeurbanne, a suburb of Lyon.

BACKGROUND

Algerians account for a major proportion of the estimated 4 million Muslims of all nationalities and origins who live in France. In recent years, Islam has become the second largest religious grouping in France, behind Roman Catholicism but ahead of Protestantism. The growing population of Algerians and other Muslims has helped fuel anti-immigrant and racist sentiments. The right-wing National Front Party has capitalized on those sentiments.

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