Handpicking historians to discuss France-Algeria's colonial history won't help

Handpicking historians to discuss France-Algeria's colonial history won't help
Comment: Algeria and France are about to have a long overdue discussion about their colonial past. But will it be anything other than self-serving? Malia Bouattia considers the question.
6 min read
23 Jul, 2020
France maintained colonial rule over Algeria for 132 years [Getty]
Understanding history helps us all comprehend our current reality, and often equips us with the ability to better resist ongoing injustice. 

News of a historian being appointed in Algeria and another in France to address the bloody colonial past between the two nations, is of course something to be welcomed. Especially given the racist nationalist pride of having brought "civilisation" to North Africa, which continues to this day in some corners of French society, including among its political elite.

Social divisions defined along the lines of race and class in France are woven into the fabric of every institution in the country. France is renowned for its refusal to engage with questions of racism, and even less the colonial legacy linked to it. It continues to refuse to even record statistics on racial or ethnic grounds, which is a surprisingly effective way to make structural racism "disappear".

This new initiative may well allow much needed truths to be discussed and acknowledged in public. Hopefully, a well overdue conversation about the grossly dehumanising practices, loss of life and economic exploitation directed against Algerians at the hands of the French state for over a century, will take place.

But there is also concern around the two leaders who have launched, resourced and will be controlling this process: Algerian president, 
Abdelmadjid Tebboune, and French president, Emmanuel Macron. 

Governments on both sides have a history of whitewashing, revisionism and continue to benefit from the very crimes and state practices that reopening France-Algeria colonial archives is likely to draw further attention to. 

Governments on both sides have a history of whitewashing and revisionism

Tebboune declared that, "We must face these painful events to start again profitable relations with the two countries, in particular on the economic level." He made their intentions very clear. This is not an exercise in historic truth telling with an eye on dismantling the ongoing economic and political dominance of France in Africa, but is aimed instead at providing a public greenlight to legitimising and further intensifying those very economic relations.

These have of course never really been undermined. Even after Algerian independence in 1962, many in the higher echelons of the state and the army have continued to profit from them - so much so that they are referred to as the "Party of France" in Algeria.

The trauma inflicted, reparations due to victims' families and those who survived gruesome torture at the hands of French forces, loss of land, wealth, property, exploitation of labour, targeted illiteracy, the continued impacts of destabilised languages and culture are but a few central considerations if it is the "truth" - as Tebboune states - that these two nations are after.

That's to say nothing of the large sums of money, largely accumulated through the sale of the country's natural resources, held by regime officials outside of the country, including in French banks. If there is to be justice, the money will need to come home and be redistributed. 

Since the global Black Lives Matter uprising, following the tragic death of George Floyd, it feels like many western leaders have been forced to offer something to quell the rage of racialised and migrant communities, angry about their own experiences of oppression and state violence.

Read more: Algeria appoints war veteran to research France's colonial history in rapprochement efforts

Macron, in the lead up to the 58
th anniversary of Algeria's independence returned the skulls of 24 resistance fighters who'd lost their lives opposing the French settler colonial occupation, which lasted 132 years. The 24 should be honoured, and many welcomed that they were finally laid to rest in Algeria during a ceremony at El Alia cemetery, with many others who fought for the liberation of the Algerian people. 

The festivities also highlighted the contradictions that surround the anti-colonial legacy of Algeria. Tebboune can pay tribute to the heroism of those who were brutally killed in the fight for freedom by French forces, while condemning and arresting countless activists from the Hirak - the movement that is fighting for democracy and social justice in Algeria since February 2019 - who continue that very battle today. 

Macron is also far from innocent. Hypocrisy has defined his politics since his electoral campaign. It's rich to see him undertake this action, when he declared in 2018 during his tour of formerly colonised African countries, that Algerians needed to get over French colonisation and stop bringing it up.

He is now clearly giving just enough to appease the criticism his predecessors faced, without actually giving anything at all in terms of structural reform. The legacy of French colonialism is on his doorstep, because its impact on people of colour and migrants has never gone away. The
banlieues, prisons, and even the graveyards where those who died at the hands of police violence, border control and in state custody lay and continue to be sent to today, can all be hidden behind the work of hand-picked official historians. 

Analysing the past is most valuable to the masses if it relates to the current state of affairs. The lip-service paid by leaders across the West, when statues of imperialist figures are being taken down by a wave of uncompromising protesters, only highlights the anxiety that the most powerful have over delving into the history books.

The next step by the political elite is always to take back control. Macron has put forward a project that distances him from the crimes of France, presents him as a "listening" and perhaps even as a "progressive" leader for engaging with this subject, while not addressing the huge social problems which plague the country, and disproportionately impact Algerians as well as other racialised communities.

Tebboune made their intentions very clear. This is not an exercise in historic truth telling

Likewise, Tebboune, in the true style of the regime, uses the legacy of anti-colonial struggle in Algeria to present himself as a worthy leader of a people known for their uncompromising fight against injustice.

He can, through supporting this initiative, don the cloak of our martyrs, control the historical narrative, and insult the masses who continue to fight for the denied promises of our liberation. They have long watched the regime weaponise the Algerian revolution for its own gains, and are unlikely to buy it now.

The colonial crimes are not to be found in history books and official archives. They are taking place in the streets of Algiers and Paris, the French banlieue and the Algerian shantytowns, in the bank accounts and palaces of our rulers, and in the unmarked graves of the Mediterranean.

They are the borders, the cops, and the generals. They are the broken promises and the stolen dreams, the countless uprisings and the revolutionaries in prison cells. Open the books, for sure, but only so we can use them as weapons for the present.

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

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.