Why France’s colonial chapter in Algeria is anything but history
“Here we drown Algerians” sign on Saint-Michel Bridge in Paris in 1961. Dozens of bodies were later pulled from the River Seine. .
Election season can be a circus at the best of times but in France it comes with a dose of controversy. Recent comments by presidential hopeful Emmanuel Macron referring to France’s colonialism in Algeria as a “crime against humanity” has caused uproar from one end and mediocre reactions from another.
In pandering to the Algerian vote, the subject of France’s colonialism has once again come to surface as a political card for opportunistic politicians warring for the win, and provoked the same recycled debates with little effectiveness or elicitation of credible solutions.
The politics of colonialism
37 years after Algeria declared independence, Paris finally voted in 1999 to recognise the Algerian war of independence for what it was and not simply “events of Algeria”, marking the beginning of a pattern of reluctant reforms encouraged by Algiers’ mild pressure.
A few years later, France decided that coming to grips with its colonial past needed a different tune- in February 2005 French parliament voted to pass a law in which France’s colonialism would be referred to as a “positive role.”
Unsurprisingly, the law was opposed by many politicians and historians but no more so than in Algeria where a storm was ignited by protestations.
This fervour however was not translated in the Algerian government’s response which was tame given the seriousness behind France’s whitewashing of its quasi-genocide. Foreign affairs minister Mohammed Bedjaouie summed up the disappointing reactionary mood by ignorantly reducing the law to a “Franco-French issue”, removing any advantage Algeria could gain in France’s changing political tide.
Despite this, the law was repealed a year later by President Jacques Chirac because “writing history is the job of the historians, not of the laws,”- a relevance lost by the use of its history long manipulated for contemporary opportunistic urgency.
Five years later was enough time it seemed for Algiers to make its next move in a game where France still maintained its domineering streak. Members of the National Liberation Front proposed a law to the National People’s Congress that would criminalise colonialism and create a special court to try war criminals.
The bill, however, never came to pass with many rejecting the bill, including those from the influential revolutionary family organisations, because “patriotism had become a business.” The attempt met the same fate as the request by some deputies in the mid-1990s, calling for France to compensate victims of its catastrophic Algerian nuclear tests in the 1960’s.
“Those who want to have compensation have only to do it individually,” the Minister of Parliament Relations at the time would comment- the country’s need for collective justice was viewed as an inconvenience the ruling elite would not benefit from if entertained. Following 40 years of denial, France’s parliament would later vote to compensate the victims in 2009- those long dead after serving France’s strategic interests reduced to statistics.
The stances of the National Moudjahidine Organisation (NOM) and the Moudjahidine Ministry whose revolutionary foundational principles could be orchestrated to effective end have instead aided in reducing Algeria to a reactionary force. Even in instances when Algiers seemed forthright in its language, France’s response has been patronisingly simplistic.
When in 2006, President Abdelaziz Bouteflika declared that colonisation had brought the genocide of Algeria’s identity, language and traditions, the French foreign affairs minister responded that the two countries should adopt a respect “to establish a common future and overcome the sad pages,”- a conclusion that pitifully defines a discourse that has been left unchallenged to damaging end.
Macron’s comments essentially reflect a new polemic that highlight the highly political dichotomy of Frances colonial past. Macron is not alone in his restorative rhetoric; Benoit Hamon, another presidential candidate of the French Socialist Party stated that he would be open to the possibility of France apologising if elected but would not characterise colonisation as Macron has.
Little solace can be taken from his words that dance around a subject exploited to such an immoral extent that any positive consequence is now rendered inauthentic and unrealistic.
Macron’s words were certainly unprecedented for a French official however Algeria has once again shown its reactionary performance to be pitifully mediocre. Minister of the Moudjahidine, Tayeb Zitouni responded by reiterating that “France must assume its responsibilities towards Algeria.” Ahmed Ouyahia, director of cabinet for the presidency of the Republic, perhaps understood the opportunism behind Macron’s remarks as nothing more than “electoral speech.”
“He is only a candidate and wants to attract the French electorate of Algerian origin and obtain material support from the Algerian State for his campaign”, President of the Algerian National Front (FNA) rightfully commented.
For others, Macron’s comments are just stating the obvious. “How can we not consider… the exactions against isolated and defenceless populations during the Revolution [and] the large-scale massacres committed at the beginning of colonisation as crimes against humanity?” one party member explained.
“A law criminalising colonialism must not be proposed by any person, party or association. It must be a law of the Algerian Republic,” Tayeb El Houari of the Chouhada Children’s Organisation explains- an expectation many Algerians will not be anticipating to be actualised anytime soon.
Transitioning from colonial nostalgia and national amnesia
France’s colonial chapter may have ended but its carefully maintained interference has not. France’s colonial past is a factor that continually imposes itself at the stake of France’s presidential campaigns with hopefuls showcasing the necessary skillset that can disguise its imperialistic ambitions.
Sensationalist comments on colonialism seek to isolate it to the pages of history rather than an impeding presence that has permeated the societies of the once colonised and the coloniser. They fail to highlight the historical context of France’s discrimination and ghettoisation of millions of its Arab citizens. Nor do the comments seek to draw attention to the corrupt, omnipresent military power structure that has defined Algeria’s political apparatus since its independence — one that France has instead placated whilst supporting calls for democracy elsewhere.
The subject of colonialism has become a political puzzle and manipulated tool for politicians adapting their stances to the electorate they seek to lure instead of orchestrating effective dialogue in recognising their genocidal past removed from the belief of a “sharing of culture” or basis of enlightenment.
Decades later and little has moved on with relations remaining strained under the weight of guilt, betrayal, nostalgia and cynicism. However much measures are pledged to help build new pages in their shared history, little remains in addressing the lasting consequence of the 1962 Franco-Algerian split within the prejudiced heart of French society. For Franco-Algerians debating who to vote for, controversial statements however supporting do not remedy the continuing problems of the socio-economic climate they are so disadvantaged to.
In Algeria, more efforts are needed in creating an independent space that cross-examines historical accounts that places collective justice and national pride in its historic events at the forefront. Lack of pressure from the political class and historians mean the history of the national movement being subjected to criticism, analysis and debate is left within the confines of secrecy.
Even within the spheres of intellectualism, French historians have advanced further in writing and researching the war of independence than their Algerian counterparts. The political exploitation of contemporary history in Algeria and the national movement may explain the decade-long hesitations that have been reduced to opportunistic instances to legitimise cyclical political projects and serve political and economic interests.
Apologies from France stand only as isolated statements that contend a narrative that places Western hegemonic ambitions as the basis of so many its problems. An apology is unlikely to have a measurable effect, aside from drama points, in relieving Algerian sentiments, excusing governmental failures or reflecting contemporary issues in French society.
Ending France’s national amnesia that has perpetuated resentment, discord and hatred would be the first steps in understanding the foundations of its own failed social projects.
As long as positions that officialise apologies or politicise historic events are used as an ideological instrument for hegemonic ambitions, Algeria and France’s complex-bilateral relationship will remain nothing more than an artificial show based on a foundation of lies and deceit that serves no one but to legitimise the power of the ruling elite.
Yasmina Allouche holds an MA in International Conflict Studies from Kings College London. Yasmina is a Deputy Researcher and writer at the TRT World Research Centre with a focus on North Africa.