The relationship between France and its former North African colony Algeria is one tainted by a difficult and bitter colonial past. The two countries’ shared history is often the backdrop to fierce debates at the official and societal levels. In 2005, for example, the ruling UMP party passed a bill in the French parliament, which asked French teachers to highlight the “positive” aspects of French imperialism to students. This infuriated Algerian war veterans and revived their demands for formal repentance for the crimes committed by France during the colonial era.
Dialogue between the two countries has since been kept to a strict minimum. The French Pied Noirs, who once inhabited the colony, are opposed to any such apology and polls show a majority of the French agree. They either reject the idea of an official state apology or place the blame on the Algerian side.
Indeed, the issue of a colonial apology dominated discussions ahead of French President Francois Hollande's two-day state visit to Algeria last week and did little to help appease tensions. Mainstream French politicians wondered why they should admit wrongs for which they were not directly responsible. Radicals like Marine Le Pen of the Front National said Algerians should be the ones to apologise and that it would “dirty” France's pride to repent. Conservative MP and former Defence Minister Gerard Longuet was caught expressing similar comments while making an offensive gesture to an off air camera during the taping of an interview.
President Hollande, however, was unphased. He chose to visit Algeria before historical ally Morocco. Unlike his predecessors, the French President has closer ties to Algeria, where he interned at the French Embassy after graduating from the prestigious Ecole Nationale de l'Administration. As a Presidential hopeful, Hollande had already recognised the brutal repression of peaceful Algerian protests in Paris on 17 October 1961. During the protests, Algerians had been thrown into the river Seine at the order of Paris' police chief Maurice Papon. Hollande's gestures had a very positive impact in the eyes of the Algerian public and political elite. They praised him for his political courage and said they would welcome him with open arms.
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In his visit to Algeria, President Hollande went the extra mile and spoke of a “new era” in relations. In a landmark speech to the Algerian Parliament, he acknowledged the suffering that the “brutal” colonial system had inflicted on the Algerian people and recognised, in bold and unequivocal terms, France's “failure to its own universal values” in the Setif, Guelma and Kherrata Massacres of 1945. As Europe celebrated the fall of Nazi Germany on 8 May 1945, he said, French troops killed thousands of Algerian nationalist demonstrators in these cities. President Hollande also paid homage to the communist activist Maurice Audin, who was arrested and tortured to death by the French Army for his ties to the anti-colonial movement.
However, much like predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy who refused to apologize for something he ‘was not even around to witness,’ Hollande stopped short of a full and formal state repentance for colonial crimes. Behind the scenes, the French President kept the negotiating to economic and cultural issues, hoping to steer clear of more controversy.
So did acknowledging that wrongs were committed during the war change relations between the two countries? What Hollande's comments demonstrate is that the French State can face its history with clarity and responsibility without any loss of pride.
Apologies are not belittling nor are they humiliating. Have we not all witnessed, at some point in our own lives, how a sincere apology can cement a meaningful and lasting reconciliation with those we may have wronged? It can go a long way in helping to forgive, let go of hurt and move forward. Certainly, there are on both sides of the Mediterranean, groups who refuse to turn the page of the colonial legacy and look ahead. They use the past to stoke up support, stay relevant and divert attention away from their own shortcomings. But the idealization of France's history, without any noteworthy reference for the negative aspects of its colonial enterprise, is not a behaviour worthy of the “Land of Human Rights”.
Younger generations on both sides rightly believe the relationship should be based on an equal partnership and mutual trust. That means facilitating investment opportunities for businesses and easier access to travel visas. Francois Hollande's successful visit managed to address some of these issues. Behind close doors, the dialogue was frank and there were many positive outcomes. He was able to strike the right chords to reach a hard-to-please Algerian public and the idea of an “exceptional” partnership between Algeria and France is finally back on the cards. But for it to materialise, the difficult questions should not be dodged and lofty rhetoric should finally be translated into tangible results.