France’s Hollande seeks to calm Algeria row over joke

Hollande had joked that his interior minister had just returned “safe and sound” from a trip to Algeria

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French President Francois Hollande moved Sunday to calm a diplomatic row with Algeria over a joke he made suggesting the north African country was unsafe.

The joke prompted a response from Algerian Foreign Minister Ramtane Lamamra, who called it “regrettable” and said it ended the year on a “bad note”.

In a statement, Hollande’s office said his remarks were “the subject of unfounded controversy.”

“Everyone knows the friendly feelings Francois Hollande holds for Algeria and the great respect he has for its people,” the statement said.

“He expresses his sincere regrets for the interpretation of his statement,” it said, adding that Hollande would personally relay his regrets to Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika about the incident.

Algerian Foreign Minister Lamamra later expressed his country’s “satisfaction” with the French explanation.

During a speech last week to the CRIF Jewish representative group, Hollande joked that Interior Minister Manuel Valls had just returned “safe and sound” from a trip to Algeria. “That’s already a lot,” Hollande added.

The statement sparked widespread outrage and front-page headlines in the Algerian press.

Lamamra said Saturday that the joke did not reflect “the spirit of our relations and of the reality that French delegations and others can see regarding the security situation in Algeria.”

He said he hoped “to be able to find a way before the end of the year to turn the page on this regrettable incident.”

France and Algeria have close ties but also a troubled history, after Algeria broke from French rule in a 1954-1962 war that left some 1.5 million Algerians dead.

Hollande, who polls show is among the least popular French leaders in modern history, also came under fire at home for the joke.

Far-left leader Jean-Luc Melenchon said the joke was “nauseating” while Valerie Pecresse of the main opposition center-right UMP party said it was “especially clumsy” and “not worthy of a president of France”.

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