How France's refusal to right historical wrongs marred a reconciliation project with Algeria

How France's refusal to right historical wrongs marred a reconciliation project with Algeria
Comment: As long as France refuses to acknowledge its crimes in Algeria and the need for reparations, the report's empty gestures will count for little, writes Malia Bouattia.
6 min read
29 Jan, 2021
The memorialisation of historical Algerian figures like Emir Abdelkader is not enough, writes Bouattia [Getty]
The highly anticipated recommendations from the review commissioned by president Emmanuel Macron into France's colonial history in Algeria were finally released last week. 

Some had high hopes for the proposals, given that Benjamin Stora - a historian known for his expertise on Algeria - was charged with leading the work. However, the report's findings are likely to have shattered those expectations. 

The recommendations include the establishment of a "memories and truth" commission, the official commemoration of significant dates, the renaming of some streets, and the inclusion of French colonial history classes in schools. Neither the questions of justice nor reparations for 132 years of French colonial occupation, murder, torture, theft and exploitation in Algeria appear feature in the plans. 

There is, for example, a noticeable absence of any real engagement with the use of torture against Algerians and those who supported the Algerian struggle for liberation. This is surprising, given that even Macron had previously recognised some aspects of this crime against humanity committed by the French state.

Despite Stora's reputation, the timid recommendations of this report only underline the fact that any government-led initiative would always be severely watered down - far from what's needed to rupture Algeria's continued dependency on France. That such an esteemed spokesperson of Algerian history has made a set of proposals that fail to properly address the pain and trauma that remains after over a century of racist dehumanisation, or any material compensation for its victims, is deeply disappointing. 

How can significant action be taken without an apology, and therefore a recognition of responsibility?

 Furthermore, Macron stated with the report's release that there would be "no apologies" for French colonialism in Algeria, extinguishing any expectations that this project might help close a painful chapter. The president's comments angered many Algerians at home and abroad, making the refusal to right historical wrongs the central feature of what was supposedly a project of reconciliation. 

Shockingly, Stora himself advised against an official apology. His argument was that the French government should instead take action. But how can significant action be taken without an apology, and therefore a recognition of responsibility? 

To add insult to injury, a national commemoration of the 'harkis' - those Algerians who fought for France during the Algerian war of independence - which takes place on 25 September was stressed within the report as a significant day to mark. This date was listed alongside 17 October, which marks the repression and murder of Algerian protestors in Paris who were thrown into the Seine in 1961, as well the anniversary of the Evian peace accords in March. 

Algerians, who have yet to receive any justice for the death and destruction caused by French colonialism, are now told that those who collaborated with their oppressors will be given the same place in official French history as those who helped carry out the injustice. The republic will "celebrate" its victims and their executioners. No apologies indeed. 

All of this also throws real doubt on the way in which the colonisation of Algeria will be included within the curriculum - leaving aside for a moment the fact that 60 years after Algerian liberation, a report is needed for French history to be taught accurately. 

What will this inclusion look like? What will it say about France's crimes? What about the settlers and collaborators? Will it address the supposed "civilising mission" of the republic, and dispossession of Algerian wealth?

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Will it talk about how the lessons learnt in Algeria were applied in France by the gestapo and vis versa? And what about all the other content taught in schools and universities? Will the glorifications of slavery and empire under the guise of teaching "the positive role of French colonisation" continue alongside a few lessons on the Algerian war?

The evidence so far leaves little space for hope.

In addition, the disconnect between the recommendations and the current relationship between the French government and the majority Algerian Muslim diaspora in France today is an important aspect of this issue, and how it is playing out. It may be the very reason that Macron's office has taken the line of "no repentance nor apologies". Because doing either would risk leading to the recognition that those old colonial relations continue in the present day, through institutional racism, poverty, criminalisation and violent repression of the descendants of the colonised.

In fact, refusing to provide an apology is a clear "action" on the part of Macron. Consistent with his attacks against French Muslims in recent months, he is playing to the far-right electorate in France, for whom the memory of French Algeria remains a key theme. The war currently being waged against Muslim organisations, mosques and religious teachers in the name of the struggle against so-called "separatism" is a desperate attempt, by an unpopular president, to rally Marine Le Pen's voters to his banner.

Islamophobia has been a key strategy for Macron's re-election campaign, and he cannot be seen to give in to the Algerian people's demands, or to tarnish the name of the republic. 

Islamophobia has been a key strategy for Macron's re-election campaign

The truth is, Algerians are still fighting for their liberation, both in the homeland and in France - against their own regime, and against that of their former colonisers.

The renaming of streets or the memorialisation of historical Algerian figures such as Emir Abdelkader is all well and good, but these are empty gestures, while Algerians continue to be treated as second class citizens, as terrorists in the making. Not to mention, the Algerian regime that Macron refuses to speak out against also uses commemorations and vague statements about the past in order to reinforce its power, while its people are starved and beaten.

No report can set the people free. Certainly not one commissioned by the same people whose boot continues to press down on their necks. They can keep their commemorations; the people will continue to take the streets.

They can re-write official histories; the people will continue to tell their stories through struggle. They can refuse to apologise; the people will force it from their lips and right the wrongs - past and present - revolt after revolt.

Malia Bouattia is an activist, a former president of the National Union of Students, and co-founder of the Students not Suspects/Educators not Informants Network.

Follow her on Twitter: @MaliaBouattia

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Opinions expressed here are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of her employer, or of The New Arab and its editorial board or staff.