Macron, Algeria and the white man's burden

Macron, Algeria and the white man's burden
Comment: Macron's suggestion that the antidote to Algerian woes is historical amnesia, is a deeply insulting example of continuing colonial attitudes, writes Malia Bouattia.
6 min read
03 Jan, 2018
France's colonial rule over Algeria lasted 132 years, ending in 1962 [Anadolu]
French President Emmanuel Macron's somewhat contradictory approach during his tour of numerous African countries last year did not go unnoticed. His recent visit to Algeria caused an uneasy stir.

Many were hopeful that the new president would finally offer the official apology that Algerians have been demanding for more than five decades, for France's 132 year-long colonisation of their land. But the reality of his address was, in some ways, worse than those of his predecessors.

The heightened anticipation had much to do with Macron's previous comments about the French colonial war being "a crime against humanity".

But upon arrival, his address to Algerians showed a patronising and arrogant motivational speaker, with a mission to whitewash and "save the people from themselves", as he urged the nation stop focusing on their past and move on from their colonial history.

This was perhaps unsurprising given his comments at the G20 Summit when replying to an Ivorian journalist about the lack of Marshall Plan for Africa, stating: "The challenge of Africa, it is totally different, it is much deeper, it is civilisational today".

This, of course caused outrage, as the French president repeated the very terminology his imperialist forefathers used to justify the colonisation of African lands and peoples.

The "mission civilisatrice" (or "civilising mission") was a racist justification for the exploitation and subjugation of People of Colour at the hands of the French.

The historical erasure operated by Macron has more to do with his political and economic project

He went further as he suggested that the investment in the continent was pointless while there continues to be a crisis of demographics, with women having seven or eight children each.

Similarly, in Burkina Faso he refused to take responsibility for the ongoing energy shortages in the country and mocked its President Roch Marc Kabore. Indeed, when the latter left the stage, Macron announced that he was on his way to fix the air conditioning. Africans, it seems, should know their place.

During his trip to meet with President Abdelaziz Bouteflika and other officials, he paid particular attention to young people, stating "Algeria's youth can't just look to its past. It needs to look forward and see how it will create jobs." 

"Your generation must not allow this. It's not an excuse [to blame the past] for what is happening today." With around 70 percent of the population under the age of 35, Macron's intention was obvious: Focus anger on the government and away from France.

However, his attempts to appeal to the present day frustrations around mass unemployment and the lack of prospects, by suggesting the antidote is historical amnesia, was deeply insulting to say the least.

The French president's 'mission' seemed to be more about reinforcing generational divides and frustrations among Algerians, than healing long-standing ruptures.

He underscored this as he spoke to young people in the streets of Algiers, telling them they were not even alive to witness colonialism, and should move on.

Presumably, the suggestion being that those who continue to emphasise its relevance, are boxing themselves into a past that prevents them from obtaining economic success in the present. 

Often described as the nation of 1.5 million martyrs in the struggle for liberation, the struggle against French imperialism is a significant chapter in the collective memory of the Algerian people.

The idea that there is somehow a zero sum game between remembering the past, understanding its continued importance, and contemporary struggles is one that flies in the face of the ongoing fight for social justice in Algeria.

Young people, activists, academics, workers, trade unionists, journalists and students have been mobilising to hold the government to account. They continue to be critical of the FLN's rule and policies, which have left the people in a state of continued hogra (oppression), and their fight is nourished and strengthened by the collective memory of the revolutionary struggle for independence.

In the last few weeks alone, Algeria has witnessed the hunger strike by Hadda Hazem, editor of El-Fadjr over the state's withdrawal of funding as punishment for the paper's criticisms of President Bouteflika and freedom of the press, and protests  over the preservation of the Berber language Tamazight.

The white man's burden is still deeply entrenched in the practices of French leaders

The revolutionary tradition of a people, sharpened against the oppression and aggression of the French republic, looms large over Algerians' contemporary mobilisations. It is because they struggle that they understand the ongoing relevance of the history of French colonialism in shaping both international relations and local inequalities.

In reality, the historical erasure operated by Macron - as others before him - has more to do with his political and economic project, both in terms of French interest in Africa and the state's targeting of racialised communities in France. He cares little for the future of Algerian youth.

He added insult to injury when he spoke of his desire for the "pieds-noirs" (French and other European settlers) and "Harkis" (those who collaborated with French forces against the Algerian liberation movement) to be given the right to re-enter Algeria.

A sentiment he shared via twitter where he appeared to offer - in exchange - the return of 19th century skulls of Algerian freedom fighters that the French had taken back to their country as symbols of victory, and which are currently housed in the National Museum of Natural History.

Read more: Where has Algeria's revolutionary spirit gone?

It's difficult to find a more potent symbol of the continued relevance of French colonialism: A French president attempting to dictate the behaviour of a former colony towards its oppressors, and continuing to hold on to morbid colonial artefacts, while simultaneously declaring that the very legacy of colonialism is dead and buried.

The white man's burden is still deeply entrenched in the practices of French leaders, and Macron reinforced this repeatedly on his travels across Africa.

While Macron instructs Algerians to forget, he is in reality putting them to work on 'cleaning' the darker chapters of his own history

While Macron instructs Algerians to forget, he is in reality putting them to work on "cleaning" the darker chapters of his own history and civilization he wants to see glorified.

It seems that when all is said and done, in the eyes of France, this is all Algerians are ever good for (whether in Parisian offices and flats, or in the grand narratives of history): Scrubbing the dirt and cleaning up the mess.  

One is reminded, forcefully, of the words of Frantz Fanon in The Wretched of the Earth: "The history which (the settler) writes is not the history of the country which he plunders but the history of his own nation in regard to all that she skims off, all that she violates and starves".

That history is still being written through plunder and exploitation. And it is still being rewritten through struggle and resistance.

Malia Bouattia is an activist, the 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.