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French and Algerians mend fences despite memories of war

Remember the scene in 1975 in Saigon of Americans cramming aboard helicopters to flee the North Vietnamese Army? Twenty-one years ago, Jacques Roseau and about 1 million other Frenchmen had a similar experience. They hurriedly packed onto boats and left Algeria. The eight-year Algerian war, which had torn apart France just as Vietnam tore apart America, was ending, and as a French settler, Mr. Roseau feared for his life.

''If we didn't leave, the rebels would have killed us,'' he recalls. ''I was 23 and I had lost everything. I arrived in Marseilles with a wife and one valise.''

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Today, Mr. Roseau is a smooth-talking executive for a prosperous construction company in Paris. His creased, tough-looking face hints that some emotional wounds from the war remain. But in his three-piece suit, he welcomes a visitor with a friendly smile.

Most of the scars have healed, he explains. He has returned to Algeria four times in the past five years, mending fences with the Algerian friends.

Last week he even welcomed Algerian President Chadli Benjedid to Paris. The visit was the first by an Algerian head of state. For Mr. Roseau and many others , it symbolically turned the page on a most heated chapter in French history: The war took at least a quarter of a million lives, bringing down the Fourth Republic.

''You have to forgive,'' Mr. Roseau explains. ''I still think we were treated terribly. But I now also realize that keeping Algeria French forever was impossible.''

In 1962, he believed otherwise. Hadn't his family lived there for more than 100 years, ever since his great-grandfather settled in the newly colonized land in 1848? Hadn't they turned a huge expanse of barren land on the coast to the west of Algiers into a rich vineyard?

''We made our lives there,'' Mr. Roseau says. ''We were French, and Algeria was French.'' Even after spending 21 months in the Army battling guerrillas, he believed this. In 1958, huge demonstrations in Algiers by French settlers came close to causing civil war. Only Charles de Gaulle's ascension to power calmed the situation. But when de Gaulle finally decided to grant independence in 1962, dissidence spread into open subversion. A group of French generals committed to keeping Algeria for France launched a military putsch, and it took de Gaulle a tense three days to subdue the rebellion.

Mr. Roseau supported the generals. Despite their failure, he wanted to stay on and fight. But as French troops withdrew, he and his family feared a massacre. Without Army protection, Frenchmen risked being kidnapped and ending up in a ditch by the side of a dirt road.

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One week before independence, Roseau boarded the boat to Marseilles. Arriving penniless in France, he found few friends. Mainland Frenchmen sneered at the so-called pieds noirs, the nickname given by the barefooted Algerians to French settlers who wore boots. No one would rent him an apartment.

''They feared we wouldn't pay up,'' Roseau remembers. ''They also feared we were violent, backward, politically extreme, even fascists.''

The pieds noirs proved them wrong. Like many other minority groups, they worked hard, moving swiftly into prominent positions in business. Politically, too, they quickly joined the mainstream. Roseau voted for Socialist Francois Mitterrand in 1981 and lives comfortably in a posh Paris suburb.

''We are much richer here than we ever were in Algeria,'' he says.

Social integration came more slowly. Although they were French citizens, the pieds noirs had a distinct Mediterranean, Arab-influenced cultural background. They did not feel at home in France.

''What do I miss about Algeria?'' asks Roseau. ''Everything. The sun, the ambiance, the life - so rich and colorful.''

These memories will never fade. But at the same time, many of the bad memories from the war years are disappearing. Both Algeria and France have moved to make amends.

Last year, the French government amnestied the generals who plotted to overthrow the government. A bill to pay indemnity to the pieds noirs who lost their life savings was also voted.

Algerian attitudes changed when the repressive, closed regime of Houari Boumedienne was replaced in 1979 by the more open, Western-oriented government of Mr. Chadli. At last, the pieds noirs were able to revisit their former homes.

Economic and political ties were strengthened. Last year, France agreed to buy Algerian gas at above-market prices. And after last week's visit, the Algerians decided to buy French airplanes and trucks.

Politically, although they do not always share the same view, President Mitterrand and President Chadli have established good working relations. France looks to Algeria for advice and help with its problems in Africa and the Middle East.

Problems, of course, remain. Both presidents are worried by the apparent growth of racism in France, much of it directed against Algerian immigrants. Over the summer, several immigrants were killed by Frenchmen, and this fall, the extreme-right National Front Party won more than 10 percent of the vote in several municipal elections on a ''bash-the-foreigners'' campaign.

In France, the 400,000 harkis (Muslim Algerians who fought with the French and were forced to flee to France) have not integrated as well as the Roman Catholic or Jewish pieds noirs.

In Algeria, French cemeteries nationalized by the Algerians are another unresolved issue. And Algerian authorities continue to ban some 30,000 half-French children from joining their French parents.

Still, both sides have gone much further toward healing the wounds than Americans have with Vietnam.

''Rapprochement is necessary,'' Roseau says. ''I feel very comfortable when I take my vacations in Algeria. The hostile Algeria has disappeared. Now even the men who tried to kill me invite me into their homes for lunch.''

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