Should Algerians expect an apology from France 60 years on?
Today, Algeria celebrates the sixtieth anniversary of its independence from France after 132 years of colonisation. Despite continuous requests for a formal apology over the horrors that were committed by France, an adviser to the French president recently stated that “there will be no repentance, there will be no apologies” for the atrocities that were committed during the colonial period. The representative added, “repentance is vanity. Recognition is the truth. Truth is built with actions.”
Emmanuel Macron would only go as far as committing to “symbolic acts” aimed at promoting reconciliation.
Indeed, the apology demanded by Algeria represents a very divisive issue in France.
During his presidential campaign in 2017, Macron visited Algiers and called France’s colonisation of the country “a crime against humanity.” This comment infuriated many French people and politicians. François Fillon, the then leading centre-right candidate for presidency, criticised Macron’s “indignity” and “constant repentance” regarding France’s attempts to “share” its culture with the people of Africa. As for the far-right Marine Le Pen, she accused him of “detesting France”.
''Sixty years on the message is heard loud and clear: France is prepared to apologise to those who were considered by Algerian nationalists as traitors, but not apologise over the colonisation and exploitation of an entire country and to the people who were tortured, raped and killed by French settlers and authorities during that time.''
These views are held by those within Macron’s own camp also. In November 2020, his prime minister, Jean Castex ridiculed the demands for an apology. Castex linked this to attempts to appease Islamist terrorists and denounced the process as “compromises that have been taking place during many years” and mockingly adding, “we should flagellate ourselves, regret colonisation, I don’t know what else.” He declared, “[t]he first way to win a war is for the national community to come together, to be united, to be proud. Proud of our roots, our identity, our Republic, our freedom. We must win the ideological fight.”
Apparently, this includes a defence of colonial violence, conquest and the continued racism inflicted on the post—colonial generations.
The backlash towards Macron’s indictment of French colonisation prior to his first election was clearly considerable since he has since refrained from making similar statements.
Last year, France officially commemorated the massacre of between 100-150 Algerians on 17 October 1961 (in some accounts the number increases to 300). These Algerians gathered in Paris to protest against a discriminatory curfew which the French authorities imposed against the backdrop of Algeria’s war of independence. They had hoped it would control the movement of French Algerians and to cut any support for nationalists. The then police chief Maurice Papon, a former Nazi collaborator, gave the order to crackdown on protesters. As such, the French police shot them dead and threw them in the Seine River.
Macron laid a wreath in memory of the victims. However, he did not apologise for the crimes committed by the police that night. The Elysée’s statement on the day disappointed those who had hoped for an official recognition of the killing of scores of Algerians at what initially had been a peaceful protest.
Macron also withheld any apology on behalf of the Republic when he oversaw the repatriation of 24 skulls of Algerian resistance fighters who had been decapitated by French officers who had taken them to France as war trophies. Their skulls had been lying in cardboard boxes at the Musée de l’Homme in Paris. Algeria officially asked for their return as well as the handover of colonial archives back in 2018.
However, Algerian and French academics had been campaigning for this since 2011 after historian and researcher Ali Farid Belkadi saw the skulls in the museum and alerted Algerian authorities.
Sitting president Abdelmajid Tebboune said that these Algerian fighters “had been deprived of their natural and human right to be buried for more than 170 years.” Instead of an apology accompanying the coffins that carried the skulls of the decapitated fighters, the French president said that the return of the remains was a gesture of “friendship” and an attempt to “reconcile the memories of the French and Algerian people”
Furthermore, what has added insult to injury is that Macron apologised to the Harkis - those who betrayed their country and fought on the side of France during the 1954-62 war in which 1.5 million Algerians died. France had abandoned the Harkis in Algeria following independence, leaving them to face accusations of treason. The French president even awarded la Légion d’honneur, which represents France’s highest civilian honour, to former Harkis fighters, and even set up a solidarity fund for them.
Sixty years on the message is heard loud and clear: France is prepared to apologise to those who were considered by Algerian nationalists as traitors, but not apologise over the colonisation and exploitation of an entire country and to the people who were tortured, raped and killed by French settlers and authorities during that time.
Perhaps then, the question of ‘when will France apologise for the atrocities it committed in Algeria?’ had already been answered. Though, this certainly doesn’t mean Algerians should stop demanding it.
Jyhene Kebsi is a Lecturer in Gender Studies at Macquarie University, Australia and a recipient of multiple prizes and awards, including Fulbright.
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