In September last year, Emmanuel Macron apologized to the harkis and their descendants on behalf of the French Republic. The president thus paid tribute to the sad fate of the 200,000 North African soldiers who fought alongside the French army during the Algerian war. Upon independence, in 1962, more than 60,000 were executed by the new Algerian government, accused of treason; those who were able to go into exile in France were interned in camps such as Rivesaltes (the same one that the Spanish republicans had occupied under the Vichy regime) or in old prisons, condemned to marginalization and oblivion by the very country for which they had fought .
Until 2001, the French State remained silent and oblivious to the debt it had contracted with these soldiers and their families. That year, a timid statement by Jacques Chirac marked the beginning of a slow path towards recognition; Since then, each president has been adding words to the speech until reaching Emmanuel Macron, the first to ask for forgiveness.
The issue of historical memory is, for the French president, both a political tool and a moral commitment, inherited from his collaboration with the philosopher Paul Ricœur. Still a student, Macron assisted Ricœur during the writing of the book The memory, the history, the oblivionin which the author defends a policy of “fair memory”, an alternative to partisan use and the temptation of denial.
“Unlike history, memory isolates an event from its context, because it aims to bring it out of oblivion, but not insert it into a coherent narrative that gives it meaning,” analyzes the historian at the University of Paris-Nanterre Mohamed Arbi Nsiri, a specialist in the history of mentalities. “Memory is affective, while History aims to rationalize,” he says.
The example of Rwanda
In one of his last international trips, in Cameroon, the French head of state has tried to rebuild relations, often tense, with Yaoundé and for this, he proposed to create a commission of historians that “shed light” on the events of the colonization. A scheme that he has already put into practice in Rwanda, where the researchers’ work led to a report and an acknowledgment of the “political responsibility of France” in the genocide, who have played a central role in restoring relations between the two countries.
“History has always been linked to politics and diplomacy; that is not a new fact,” says Nsiri. “But you have to understand that history as a science is totally independent in its methods and techniques and that the state officialization of a historical event does not change that circumstance,” she says.
The ambition to found a new relationship between countries with a common past is not new either, but Macron has sought to add a new dimension to it, aimed at resolving legacy disputes and strengthening ties with former colonies. An even more relevant question when Russia shakes up that past in the propaganda campaigns in Africa that accompany its implantation in countries like Mali or Burkina Faso. “The work of European historians and researchers and that of the former colonized countries must be confronted,” observes sociologist Louis Mohamed Seye, who also holds the position of deputy mayor in the town of Fontenay-sous-Bois, on the outskirts from Paris. “History cannot be written only by the colonizers because that makes arguments that we still hear today persist, such as that Africa did not exist in history or that colonization had positive aspects,” he explains.
The wound of the Algerian war
But of all the wounds opened by colonization, the trauma caused by the Algerian war (1954-1962) is perhaps the most visible. It is also the most important memorial challenge of the current president who, in his own words, wants to give the commemorations of this episode “the same importance that Chirac gave to the Shoah in 1995.” That year, the then president acknowledged in a speech —delivered in front of the Velodrome d’Hiver commemorative monument— that the French state, through the Vichy regime, had “committed the irreparable” in the 1942 raids, in which he was arrested. and deported thousands of Jews to Germany.
In 2020 Macron turned to the historian Benjamin Stora, one of the greatest specialists in Franco-Algerian relations, who he commissioned to write a report outlining the path towards “the appeasement and serenity of those whom the war has wounded, both in France and in Algeria. The conclusions of the document, published last yeardescribe “a competition of memories of victims” in which each group puts their own wound before it as “superior to that of the others”.
Benjamin Stora recommends a policy of “baby steps” on a series of specific issues in order to build “bridges” between the two shores of the Mediterranean on “issues that remain sensitive”: those who disappeared during the war, the aftermath of French nuclear tests , the opening of archives to investigators, the recognition of state crimes or the rehabilitation of historical figures.
Thus, in addition to the acknowledgment of the debt with the harkis, In October of last year, Macron described as “inexcusable crimes for the Republic” the massacres committed in Paris by the French police, which in 1961 caused more than a hundred deaths among protesters called by the National Liberation Front. In January he recognized the “injustices” and “tragedies” suffered in 1962 by the pieds noirs (French citizens of European origin born in Algeria), in particular the “unforgivable massacre” of Isly, in Algiers, when the French army repressed with live fire a demonstration by supporters of French Algeria.
The French government has begun to implement other recommendations of the Stora report: in March last year, the president officially recognized the murder of Ali Boumendjel, a lawyer and political leader of Algerian nationalism, executed by the French army; shortly afterwards a bust of Emir Abdelkader was installed in the city of Amboise (where he was exiled); Scholarships were also awarded to 16 young Algerian researchers who will work on archival collections in France on questions of historical memory. In addition, the construction of a museum on the common history of France and Algeria is planned, which should open its doors in Montpellier in the coming years.
Difficult relationship with Algiers
It is estimated that today in France some seven million people have lived – directly or indirectly – the tragedies of the decolonization of Algeria: pieds noirs, Algerian emigrants on French soil or descendants of soldiers who participated in the conflict. All this in a context in which identity issues have an important weight in the public debate, with a division between those who are reluctant to repent and groups that demand greater recognition of colonial crimes.
A past that, in addition, complicates the deteriorated relations between Paris and Algiers for more than half a century. In September 2021, at an event with young people of Algerian origin, Emmanuel Macron stated that the current “political-military system” in Algeria had been built on the “income of memory”, in addition to wondering, perhaps as a provocation, ” if an Algerian nation existed before the arrival of France”. Statements, collected and published by Le Monde which caused Algiers to withdraw its ambassador from Paris.
Since then, both governments have managed to reduce the tension, although Macron himself insists on placing the issue of memory at the center of the debates. The latest example was given in a visit to Algeria a few weeks ago, in which both governments announced progress on several key issues, such as visas for young people (which Paris has reduced to put pressure on Algiers) and issues related to energy supply from Europe.
Thus, on the first day of the visit, Macron and the Algerian president announced the creation of a joint commission of French and Algerian historians who will focus their work – “without taboos” – on the period that covers “from the beginning of colonization to the war of liberation”. “As long as the colonial imaginary is not seriously worked on and deconstructed, relations between the French who have a genealogical link with the former colonial empire and the others will continue to be complicated,” warns Louis Mohammed Seye.
Colonialism and slavery
The recent appointment of the historian Pap Ndiaye as Minister of Education is also part of this effort to reconcile the French with their past. A specialist in the social history of the United States, he was until now the director of the Palais de la Porte-Dorée, headquarters of the National Museum of Immigration History. His arrival marks a complete break with his predecessor, Jean-Michel Blanquer, contrary to any acknowledgment of responsibility or guilt of France as a former colonial power. A turn denounced especially by the extreme right; Marine Le Pen reacted by describing the new minister as an “assumed indigenist”.
One of the most sensitive elements that France faces as a legacy of the colonial past is the trade and use of slaves. In this sense, the approval of the Taubira law in 2001 was the cornerstone of the memorial building and the first recognition of slavery and trafficking as crimes against humanity. “Thanks to Christiane Taubira, the criminal dimension of slavery has been taken into account for the first time,” says Seye, “collective amnesia has been maintained for a long time by a republican memory that has hidden that episode in French history.”
In 2008 it was integrated into the secondary school curriculum for the first time and academic research has come a long way thanks to the International Slavery Research Center which was created in 2006. “The Taubira law is taking time to settle among citizens; In general, it affects Afro-descendants a lot but less so the rest of the French population”, summarizes Seye, who has organized a plan of cultural activities in Fontenay-sous-Bois to advance conciliation and memory. “We have to get together to transmit a story without spaces of shadow, or fatal amnesias for coexistence,” she concludes.