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Algeria: Will Macron’s commemoration of deadly protests heal wounds?

By Nadia Henni-Moulaï
Posted on Tuesday, 19 October 2021 09:05

France’s President Emmanuel Macron commemorating the massacres of 17 October 1961, on the Bezons bridge, 16 October 2021. Elysée Palace

On 16 October, France’s President Emmanuel Macron commemorated the 60th anniversary of 17 October 1961, the day when dozens of Algerian demonstrators were killed in Paris. This was an unprecedented gesture that was intended to “address the whole of French society,” the Élysée Palace said.

“On 17 October 1961, the FLN’s French Federation organised a protest in Paris against the 5 October decree, which […] prohibited Algerians from leaving their homes after 8.30pm. In the evening, despite the fact that the demonstration had been banned, more than 25,000 men, women and children headed for various assembly points. The crackdown was brutal, violent and bloody,” the Élysée Palace said in a statement on 16 October.

In addition to publishing this text, Macron paid a visit to the Bezons bridge, near Nanterre, the place where many Algerian demonstrators had left that day. He observed a minute’s silence after laying a wreath of flowers.

“Live ammunition was fired there [on the Bezons bridge] and bodies fell into the Seine at that point. It is therefore important to mark the existence of places of remembrance, such as the Bezons bridge, which is located in the commune of Colombes,” the Elysée said.

“A process that belongs to us”

On 30 September, Macron had made statements about the “collective memory” that was exploited by the regime and Algeria’s reaction. Will this latest commemoration of an important event that took place during the Algerian war help improve relations between France and Algeria?

Nevertheless, an Elysee source urges caution. “This commemoration is a process that belongs to us,” they say. “Our experience also teaches us that no matter how good the gestures [towards this memory], it is never enough.” Macron did not make a speech on this occasion.

Although the Saint Michel bridge remains closely associated with the event – thanks to Elie Kagan’s famous photo showing graffiti scrawled on the wall with the words ‘Here we drown Algerians’ – other places such as Gennevilliers, Neuilly-sur-Seine and Bezons were also important focal points.

Macron wanted to acknowledge the extent of this massacre, the number of victims of which is around “120 dead”, according to historians. This is a far cry from the figure that was put forward by Maurice Papon, the police prefect at the time. In a communiqué that was published on 18 October 1961, the authorities had mentioned two deaths. The Elysée’s statement did not give a precise figure, only mentioning “many injured” and “several dozen dead.”

New milestone in the policy of remembrance

Regarding the date, Macron, here too, delivered a tacit message that reiterated this episode’s historic significance. “The repression of the 17 October 1961 demonstration was part of a violent sequence of events that lasted from September to October 1961, and the demonstrations continued after 17 October, notably with the women’s demonstration on 20 October.”

The Élysée also said that the president did not “wish to replace the various commemorations” traditionally held on 17 October. Therefore, by following one of the recommendations mentioned in Benjamin Stora’s report, Macron has made strides when it comes to the perilous task of commemorating the Algerian war.

After the French president unveiled a bill that would provide reparations to the harkis, observing 17 October 1961 marks a new milestone in the policy of remembrance.

Celebrating the 60th anniversary of the Evian Agreements in March 2022 is expected to be the final aspect of this policy. Even though he seems determined to honour his commitments, will Macron succeed in ‘reconciling memories’? There are eight million people who are closely or remotely linked to the Algerian war, which means this is indeed considered an essential step towards achieving national cohesion.

Mixed memories, common narrative?

It is noteworthy that the Élysée ‘invited all of this history’s stakeholders’ to the commemoration ceremony. They included descendants of the victims of the 17 October repression and independence fighters such as Ali Boumendjel’s grandchildren, citizens committed to recognition, as well as children of harkis, repatriates, conscripts, soldiers and representatives from the forces of order. According to the Élysée, it is ultimately a question of “addressing the whole of French society.”

Additionally, it is perhaps to encompass the horrors of that night in the national narrative. Some people dwelt on one particular sentence in the communiqué – “[Emmanuel Macron] recognised the facts: that the crimes committed that night under the authority of Maurice Papon are inexcusable for the Republic” – feeling that it was written in such a way that allows the French state to not formally recognise its responsibility.

At first glance, the French president’s gesture is not necessarily intended to ease diplomatic tensions with Algiers, which became worse after Paris decided to halve the number of visas it issues to Algerian nationals, and which were aggravated by the French president’s comments on the Algerian “politico-military system” on 30 September.

In a message that was broadcast on the same day as the ceremony on the Bezons bridge, Algeria’s President Abdelmadjid Tebboune expressed his “strong concern to treat issues of history and memory without complacency or compromising principles, and with a sharp sense of responsibility, free from the fads and predominance of arrogant colonialist thinking over lobbies incapable of freeing themselves from their chronic extremism.”

Although unprecedented, this commemoration and the intertwining of memories shows – in a way – that it is difficult for the French state to acknowledge the role it played in the events of 17 October, that is to say, for the capital to come to terms with its visible and bloody colonial system.

Although the Élysée has been careful not to reveal future projects of Macron’s – probable – second five-year term, it will be nearly impossible to avoid addressing the 1830-1954 period. “[…] Macron had made promises regarding this subject, which he has seen through. For instance, the skulls were returned,” the Elysée tells us, insisting that “it’s a job that takes time.” Everything is just starting then.

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