No public figure in France has ever dared to go that far in reckoning with the country’s colonial past, let alone discuss apologies. As a matter of fact, quite the opposite: No later than last August, François Fillon, the leading center-right candidate for the presidency, had stated that “no, France is not guilty to have wanted to share its culture with the people of Africa, Asia and North America.” The abyss between Fillon’s rather unfortunate “sharing” and Macron’s sweeping indictment is hardly limited to Algeria (where Macron made his statement). This is a very public fight between the candidates aspiring to France’s highest elective office about the nation’s colonial past, and therefore about its future. What should be the place of the descendants of France’s colonial subjects — Muslims from North Africa but also Vietnamese, Malagasy, Congolese, etc. — in today’s French society?
In Algeria, Macron’s declarations were welcome. Historian Fouad Soufi praised the candidate for being “courageous.” Reactions on the right to Macron have been predictably angry: Fillon denounced Macron’s “indignity” and “constant repentance.” As for populist Marine Le Pen (whose father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, allegedly engaged in torture as a paratrooper during the Algerian War of Independence), she let one of her lieutenants speak for her, accusing Macron of “detesting France.”
Comments were more muted on the left. For instance, Emmanuelle Cosse, the housing minister, disagreed on the use of “crimes against humanity” because of its precise legal nature. Yet an IFOP poll taken for the Algerian news website TSA shows the French public is divided, with 51 percent agreeing with Macron.
By using the legal qualification of crime against humanity, Macron has acknowledged the colonial enterprise for what it truly was: an illegitimate dispossession of territory and a violent subjugation of local populations for the sole benefit of the imperial power.
Formal apologies from European colonial powers are few and far between and usually involve discrete events. Germany is in the process of presenting apologies for its role in Namibia’s Herero and Nama genocide between 1904 and 1907 (without any compensation). The Netherlands apologized to Indonesia for mass killings during the War of Independence. Belgium, on the other hand, never apologized for King Leopold’s bloody rule over Congo, while England has adamantly refused to make amends for massacres in colonial India.
To this day, the Algerian War of Independence (fought between 1954 and 1962) remains highly contentious in French politics. The French Army’s human rights violations (most notably, its widespread use of torture), terrorism on both sides and the ultimate defeat and repatriation of close to 800,000 French citizens from Algeria — all these left durable divisions in French society. The mass immigration of workers from the former colony to power France’s industrial miracle during the 1960s only compounded the problem. There are now an estimated 7.3 million French people with at least one immigrant parent (out of 66 million inhabitants), including about 1 million of Algerian descent.
A decade ago, the right-wing majority passed a law demanding that the “positive role” of colonization be acknowledged in history textbooks. It was thankfully rescinded. In similar fashion, in 2001, the socialist mayor of Paris unveiled a plaque commemorating the massacre of Oct. 17, 1961. At the time, the right wing and police unions called it an “argument for Muslim extremists” and a “provocation.” That modest plaque aimed to acknowledge the up to 200 pro-independence Algerian demonstrators said to have been killed in cold blood, with some of them thrown into the Seine river, by French police. The plaque remained, but the specter of the colonial past still haunts France’s present. Last Friday, anti-Macron demonstrators in Carpentras (South) screamed “Treason” while holding banners that read “OAS” (the infamous Organisation Armée Secrète, a French terrorist death squad responsible for many anti-Algerian bombings during the War of Independence and even a failed assassination attempt on Gen. Charles de Gaulle).
The French left is not exempt from such hysteria, either. In fact, it was under a left-leaning government that the hijab was first banned in schools. An entire strain of the French left wing, from cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo to leading intellectuals, views Islam as incompatible with the République’s ideals of equality and laïcité (that is, the strict confinement of religious expression to the private sphere and the precedence of the majority’s laws).
That is why Macron’s public denunciation of the criminal nature of colonization is such a watershed. While this is not a particularly controversial view among professional historians, it goes against the most strident voices on both the nativist, populist right and the Republican, anti-religious left. Macron’s statement single-handedly opened up a space for the recognition of France’s past wrongs. The breakthrough and the hope are that identifying these wrongs, naming them and making them visible might lead to a better diagnosis of France’s complex dealing with its ethnic and religious minorities. Offering amends for the horrors of colonization is indeed a powerful and necessary gesture of truth toward the many disenfranchised French citizens of colonial origins. Speaking truth to that past is a first step on the path to reconciliation.