Algeria: Macron finally breaks the taboo around French colonial past

Marwane Ben Yahmed
By Marwane Ben Yahmed
Publication Director of Jeune Afrique

Posted on Tuesday, 4 February 2020 11:41, updated on Tuesday, 11 February 2020 10:17

French President Emmanuel Macron walks behind Republican guard carrying a wreath during a wreath-laying ceremony at the Martyrs Monument in Algiers, Algeria December 6, 2017. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra - RC1528A3CA80

When Emmanuel Macron drew a parallel between the “memorial challenges” the Algerian war represented for him and what the Holocaust (Shoah) meant for Jacques Chirac, he triggered the ire of those in France who have still not mourned the colonial era. He had the courage, at a time when Algeria is changing and opening up, to tackle a taboo.

“I am very lucid about the challenges of memory I have before me, which are political,” said Macron. “The Algerian war is undoubtedly the most dramatic of them. I have known this since my campaign. This challenge is, I think, of the same order as the one Jacques Chirac faced in 1995 when he condemned the role of the French authorities of the time in the Shoah.”

France’s right-wing and its extremists, who, obviously, have still not repented the colonial era, opened fire on him, with both barrels blazing.

How dare he compare the brave French soldiers who fought in North Africa to the Nazi executioners, those monsters of the worst kind? This Macron is a traitor and a renegade. In 2017, during his visit to Algiers during his presidential campaign, had he not already insulted the flag by calling colonization a “crime against humanity”?

Rising to the heights

The French President is, however, right. And he is, in this case, showing undeniable courage.

This is all the more apparent as he has no electoral advantage to gain from his words.

He was perhaps undiplomatic in voicing them in the plane that brought him back from Israel, where he had taken part in the commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz camp, but still, the accusations of his political opponents are unfathomably stupid.

There are times when one has the right to expect politicians to rise to a higher level.

It’s tiresome but fewer and fewer politicians are being honest about it.

Macron did not in any way compare the two tragedies, but simply explained that in his capacity as the first leader of the Republic, he had to do with regard to the Algerian war what Chirac did in July 1995 during the commemoration of the 53rd anniversary of the Vél’d’Hiv round-up: recognize the responsibility of the French State in the atrocities committed.

Reading Francophone Africa: Macron makes a break in form, but not in substance?

It does not matter, moreover, the nature of the said atrocities — slavery, colonization, Shoah or genocide of the Tutsis in Rwanda — nor the time when they were committed. Sweeping the dirt under the carpet never solved anything. Denying the past, let alone being accountable for it, has never helped to prepare for the future.

At a time when everyone is demanding greater transparency, it is astonishing to note that all memory work comes up against the same pitfalls, again and again, and that people continue to prefer taboo to serious exploration. Only historians take the risk, feigning a general indifference, and finding ways of revealing it among themselves.

Born long after the end of the war, the French Head of State has no taboos when it comes to Algeria and does not submit to any doctrine. He has shown far more courage in this area than any of his predecessors.

François Hollande, although educated and sensitive to the Algerian question, for example, had been content to describe colonisation as “unjust and brutal”; Chirac for his part had called for “facing up to the past, on both sides”, but had allowed a law, adopted on the sly in the Assembly in 2005, to evoke the “positive role” of colonisation, before repealing it. But the damage was done — and the wrath of Algiers was aroused.

Nicolas Sarkozy, was a prevaricator, strongly refusing any kind of repentance, but conceding, nevertheless, that the colonial system was “unjust by nature” and that it resembled “an enterprise of enslavement and exploitation”. A sweet euphemism!

Turning the Page

Macron has gone much further. During his election campaign, and after he was ensconced at the Élysée Palace, he paid tribute to the harkis and said France’s owed them a debt. In September 2018, he acknowledged that the communist — and pro-independence activist — Maurice Audin had “died under torture as a result of the system instituted by France in Algeria at that time.

A “system” that led to “terrible acts”, he was careful to specify.

But everybody knew. In 2013, the infamous General Paul Aussaresses confessed to such actions. So why does the right wing continue to lie or withhold the obvious? Why not reach out, at a time when Algeria is changing and opening up?

Beyond even any moral consideration, we do not see what France would have to lose by this recognition. For two decades now there has been talk of turning the page and starting a new chapter. Isn’t it not now the time to move from words to deeds.

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