Does France’s colonial past provide answers to today’s national identity problems?


                Dans quelle mesure les problèmes actuels en France peuvent-ils être expliqués par l'histoire?  Beaucoup, dit un historien, qui soutient qu'enseigner et accepter le passé colonial du pays aidera à redéfinir le concept français d'universalisme pour englober tous les citoyens français d'aujourd'hui.

                                    <p>La France a longtemps refusé d'affronter son passé colonial, focalisant l'éducation sur les «bénéfices» du colonialisme.  Emmanuel Macron, lors de sa campagne présidentielle, a qualifié la colonisation française de l'Algérie de "crime contre l'humanité", provoquant la colère des critiques qui l'accusaient de dénigrer la France. 

Historian Christelle Taraud says that French colonialism – particularly of the Second Empire, which began with the conquest of Algiers in 1830, and spread throughout North and sub-Saharan Africa and Asia – explains the crisis current French identity.

Recognizing that this would help support the country’s universalist ideals, she argues, “To be a unified people it is necessary to ‘write a new past’. Especially in France, because history in France, especially the French Revolution, is very important, much more than in other European countries.

RFI told him about his vision of an “inclusive” history which recognizes the importance of the colonial population in the history of France.

This interview is part of the Spotlight on France podcast.

Spotlight on France episode 42 © RFI

RFI: Many European countries colonized other countries throughout the 18e and 19e centuries. What is the French specificity?

Christelle Taraud: The major difference is the French question of universalism and secularism (secularism). French identity today is’freedom, equality, fraternity‘(freedom, equality, fraternity), and secularism, ideas from the French Revolution at the end of the 18th century.

And this is problematic because these ideas came at the same time as the start of the Second French Colonial Empire.

So you have the contradiction between the ideals of the French Revolution and the reality of colonial France, especially for the natives, which was exactly the opposite.

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<em><strong>RFI: </strong>Que fait cette contradiction sur l'identité nationale? </em>

CT: The difficulty is to organize this dichotomy. It’s as if you have two Frances: one on the continent, with new symbols, new rights; and in another world, overseas, you have another France with absolutely different principles, rules and rights. This is particularly true for French Algeria.

RFI: This dichotomy, or tension, therefore existed for over 150 years, until the various independence movements of the 1960s. What are the impacts on France today?

CT: It is now a very important part of our identity, which we do not want to recognize, because it is difficult to accept in France that you have a difference between the citizens.

In the 19e century, a French citizen was white and culturally Christian. But we had this very large empire with a non-white and above all culturally non-Christian population. It has therefore become necessary to move the borders of citizenship. But it was a difficult process, because we have a very important link in France between citizenship and universalism.

We have this myth – because I think it’s a myth – that anyone can represent anyone. Today we have a lot of talk about universalism and representation, and the difficulty is understanding that universalism should be much more inclusive – for women, for minorities, and of course for all. people who have this very important heritage of colonialism. .

RFI: Talk about the Pieds-Noirs, French people born in Algeria, in North Africa, who had to leave after independence and return to mainland France. What was the impact of their experience?

CT: The exodus of the Blackfoot, as they call it, was very difficult. When the French government signed the Evian Accords with the Algerian resistance, one of the difficult questions was the status of the Pieds-Noirs. Nobody wanted it.

The Algerians did not want them to stay, and on their return to France, they were very, very badly received. And we must realize that this was probably the most important migration in the French context of the contemporary period.

<div class="m-em-image">
Blackfoot refugees in the Algerian port of Oran, waiting to board a ship for France, after the referendum on the independence of Algeria of July 1, 1962
Blackfoot refugees in the Algerian port of Oran, waiting to board a ship for France, after the referendum on the independence of Algeria of July 1, 1962. © UPI / AFP
    </div><em><strong>RFI: </strong>Comment ce ressentiment se manifeste-t-il aujourd'hui dans la France contemporaine?</em>

CT: For most Blackfoot people, when you talk to them you understand that they feel like strangers in this country. And I think that’s an important key to understanding today’s France. The Blackfoot issue is a very important part of French identity, but no one wants to hear it.

And then it’s easy to say that the racism in France comes from the Pieds-Noirs. It is reductive.

RFI: Secularism is one of the pillars of French national identity, and the relationship with Islam is very much in the news in France today. What is the legacy of colonialism on this subject?

CT: In the colonial context, one of the forms of resistance was religion. It’s really clear when you see the Algerian liberation movement: religion was the main weapon of resistance.

So you have this population that is built around the issue of religion, which is also culture, of course. And they arrived in France with that. Most Algerians living in France have now arrived during the Algerian war and soon after. And they came with an Islam that was also a weapon of resistance.

But of course, part of this population also wanted to have access to French rights. And so the paradox is that now, when we see sociological studies on the integration of this population, we see that the children of these immigrants are absolutely integrated.

We had a negative interpretation of this population, as if it were a single population. But it is a very diverse community, and a very large part of it thinks that secularism, secularism, this is a good thing.

RFI: You called for a “rewriting” of the colonial history of France and for rethinking the way it is taught and evoked. How do you do this?

CT: The first step is equality. It is necessary to write this story together. If we are talking about French colonization in Algeria, I think it is absolutely necessary to write the history of French Algeria with Algerian historians. It cannot be just a story from a point of view.

So the first step is to collaborate, write books together and talk about these books together.

And after this first step, the results of this work must be integrated into the history curricula of French national education.

The third step is to have a space to illuminate this complex story. And that’s why I mentioned a museum of colonization. I think that a museum would be a very good tool to explain to the majority of the French population the reality of colonization.

This interview is part of the Spotlight on France podcast. Click here to listen to the episode.



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