The controversial legacy of colonialism in France was honored with Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune, saying that his government is still waiting for an apology from Paris for the treatment of Algerians under 132 years of French occupation, which resulted to a bloody eight-year war of independence that claimed around 1.5 million Algerian lives.
France is far from being the only one to be forced by current events to take account of its past. The colonial history of developed countries across much of the First World was examined closely in the midst of the Black Lives Matter movement. However, for France and Algeria at least, the scars of the occupation of the second by the first are painfully approaching the surface.
According to Tebboune, an apology would help “to face the memory problem that jeopardizes many things in the relations between the two countries”. In addition, looking to the future, this “would calm tensions and create a calmer atmosphere for economic and cultural relations” between the two countries, in particular for the more than six million Algerians currently residing in France. , he said.
However, after decades of near silence from the Élysée Palace about France’s actions during the occupation of Algeria, as well as the still painful memory of French barbarism during the War of Independence, it is unclear to this late stage what an apology could do to help heal the gap that continues to separate the two states.
The fact that the Algerians have grievances is a recognized fact. In September 2018, although he did not offer a full apology, French President Emmanuel Macron publicly acknowledged that France had put in place a “system” of torture during the Algerian war of independence, a system which France must now face with “courage and lucidity”.
An indication of the brutality of the occupation of Algeria by France was provided at the beginning of July, when France returned 24 skulls of the first fighters of the independence of Algeria, shot and beheaded by the French troops at the start of colonization before being taken home as war trophies. Other examples of torture and ill-treatment range from the systemic use of electrocution, beatings, waterboarding and sleep deprivation to the alleged execution of independence fighters, particularly during the battle of ‘Algiers, by setting foot in cement and dropping them from helicopters over the Mediterranean. The victims became sinisterly called “Bigeard shrimp” (“Bigeard shrimp”, named after the French commander Marcel Bigeard).
For Algerians educated in the inequalities of the French occupation since childhood, such memories leave an indelible mark. “Algerians learn too much at school about the 132 years of crimes, genocides, nuclear tests, looting. Famine and ignorance are also policies initiated by the French to torture Algerians, “freelance Algerian journalist Amine Hocine told Al-Monitor. “No one forgets these images and details in Algeria,” he said, “not only among the older generation who lived through this era, but the younger generation is also sufficiently aware of French crimes and the continued negative influence of France in the region. “
Like many former colonial masters, France seems to both seek to reconcile with the victims of its colonial past while hoping to present its role during this period in as pleasant a light as possible.
In 2011, following Macron’s visit to Algeria, Algerian Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia, who has since been imprisoned for corruption, announced that France would open its national archives for the period from 1830 to 1962. This step has not yet been taken .
On the electoral trail in 2017, the centrist Macron rejected criticism from the French right and called on France to apologize for its past crimes in Algeria. In an interview with Le Figaro, Macron described the colonization of Algeria as “crimes and acts of barbarism” which would henceforth be considered “crimes against humanity”. But Macron has yet to apologize since becoming head of state.
However, elements of the French right are not by nature willing to sabotage what they consider to be France’s glorious past, and a 2005 law obliges schools to emphasize the “positive aspects” of French colonialism. Many children who grew up under this law are already in the workforce.
“Personally, I do not hold the new French generation responsible for the crimes of their ancestors,” said Hocine, “but the provocation is their continued pride in their colonial past, by the enactment in 2005 of a law that glorifies colonialism , and France acknowledges the Armenian genocide before it recognizes its own crimes in Algeria. The apologies may result from international pressure on France, but not from a weak regime that has no popular legitimacy, “said Hocine, referring to the current Algerian government.
If the advantages of a stable relationship with the largest country in Africa as well as with a giant of hydrocarbons are obvious, France seems uncertain if it is ready to undertake a real assessment of its past.
“I think the chances of them getting an apology are slim enough, to be honest,” Jonathan Hill, an Algerian political scientist at Kings College London, told Al-Monitor. “Algeria remains a very sensitive subject for the French, a bit like Ireland for the British. In addition, Macron’s new right-wing government does not seem to be the one to apologize. “
The timing is nevertheless significant. “This request corresponds to BLM’s news concerning the review and reassessment of the story. That being said, it is a useful way to put a little pressure on Paris and perhaps use it to take advantage of certain concessions in terms of investment or aid or visas, “said Hill.
In the Western world, states find themselves reviewing their history and examining the sources of their wealth and power. It remains to be seen how far France is ready to go in this examination.