On July 5 Algeria will celebrate 50 years as an independent nation free from hegemonic French rule. It was an independence paid copiously in blood, leaving a bitter, divisive legacy in both France and Algeria. During this conflict, French military and security forces fought fiercely against a determined guerrilla insurgency. Throughout the eight years it lasted, the war claimed close to a million lives. It remains a dark stain on France’s modern history.
Yet, until recently, no French president had ever sought to atone for the colonial crimes inflicted in French-Algeria. There has never been official acknowledgement, for instance, of the 8th of May 1945 massacre of Algerians in Sétif; or an apology for those peaceful Algerian demonstrators murdered in the heart of Paris by French police in October 1961. Newly elected French president François Hollande has pledged to change this.
In a letter dated March 26, 2012, Hollande pledged to atone in an official capacity for these two events. He said that: “The truth must be known. It is important to recognize what occurred.” An apology from the French president would be momentous. France has long lived in the unspoken, unacknowledged shadow of the Algerian War of Independence (1954-1962). A war, in which the values of the French Republic were trampled on; when torture and extra judicial killings combined with deep political repression were endemic in French Algeria.
However, for many decades following Algerian independence many within the French population were against the very concept of an apology. As far as they were concerned it was an unlawful insurrection, not a demand for independence, necessitating heavy-handed suppression. Have times changed now? Unlikely.
With the rise of the Far Right in France, past conflicts such as the Algerian War are becoming politically hot again, being tied into a new narrative of French pride and military glory produced for the benefit of vote-winning. Although such interpretations are distasteful and do not take into account the full horror of the atrocities, injustices and crimes committed in French-Algeria, the Far Right seems determined to use it as a leitmotif.
Hollande’s possible apology has little political ramification for him. He’s a socialist and his party has always been more flexible on the issue of the Algerian War. However, it will mean an inevitable backlash from the Far Right, and possibly, the French mainstream right wing, against a perceived abasement of France.
To outsiders it must seem perplexing as to why France and its leaders are still tying themselves into political knots and lathers over a past war. However, those from the U.S. will no doubt appreciate the nature of highly charged legacies from their very own previous conflicts, notably Vietnam. Such wars define generations and cause a deep historical memory whose ramifications will continue for many decades. They are not easily forgotten nor ignored.
France’s war in Algeria is today suffused with the same political motifs, legends and symbolic narratives which permeate other wars of similar nature worldwide. An apology from a French president concerning French mistakes in Algeria will be an historic occasion. However, as long as the apology is constrained to those two events, and does not cover the whole of the Algerian conflict, it will border the symbolic but meaningless. It is to be hoped that such acknowledgement will open the door to more analysis, debate and critical examination of France’s brutal role in that era-defining colonial conflict, eventually leading to fuller atonement.