PARIS (Reuters) - France is closely watching the anti-government protests in former colony Algeria, but it is for Algerians to decide their future, Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said on Wednesday.
Tens of thousands of people have rallied in cities around Algeria in the largest protests since the 2011 Arab Spring, calling on President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, 82, not to stand in an election scheduled for April 18.
He submitted his registration papers on Sunday.
"We must let the electoral process unfold," Le Drian told lawmakers. "France, obviously, because of our historical links (...), is very attentive to the unfolding events."
Late on Tuesday, Algerian war veterans said the protesters demanding ailing Bouteflika step down after 20 years in power had legitimate concerns and urged all citizens to demonstrate, in another sign of cracks in the ruling elite.
"Algeria is a sovereign country and it is up to the Algerian people, and them alone, to choose their leaders and their future, it is up to the Algerian people to define their aspirations, which implies transparency and the freedom of the process," Le Drian said.
France is home to more than 4 million people of Algerian origin. Any upheaval in the North African country, which gained independence from France in 1962 after an eight-year war, would have repercussions in France.
If the situation degenerated markedly, French officials would fear an influx of refugees or illegal migrants, as well as a security crisis in a region already destabilized by Islamist militants.
"This is why the stability, security and development of Algeria are absolutely essential," Le Drian said, calling on the demonstrations there to remain peaceful.
France has been cautious in reacting to the wave of protests, not wanting to be accused of interference by Algeria's government or of not doing enough to help protesters seeking a political transition in the country, diplomats said.
France's ambassador to Algeria was asked last week to return home to personally brief Le Drian and President Emmanuel Macron. The meeting was made public to send a message to the Algerian government that Paris was carefully monitoring events.
"We don't know what's going on. It's absolutely explosive and anything we say could light a fuse. We have to remain very cautious," said a French diplomatic source.
(Reporting by John Irish; Editing by Richard Lough/Mark Heinrich)