President Emmanuel Macron recalled Chirac’s apology during a conversation with journalists on his plane last week as he was returning from a Jerusalem ceremony commemorating the liberation of Auschwitz. France’s current head of state described how Chirac had broken a taboo by recognizing what those operating in the darker recesses of the French state had done. Dutiful Paris police officers, state railroad employees and civil servants were just some of the French citizens who collaborated in abject evil. Others who did nothing — despite knowing about neighbors who had disappeared overnight — were also complicit in genocide.
Just as significantly, Macron recently discussed another abominable period in France’s recent history that many would like to forget: the Algerian War. Referring to the horrific more than seven-year-long conflict, which ended with France losing its largest African colony in 1962, Macron said: “The Algerian War is today absent from our political memory and the subject of a conflict of memories like the Holocaust was.” Speaking of the coverup of his country’s war crimes during the colonization of Algeria, he added, “We don’t talk about this. We crush it.”
Macron is sensitive to the millions of French people from Algerian backgrounds who remain aggrieved by the lack of official recognition of the crimes carried out against their forebears. Atrocities included civilian massacres and torture. The carnage occurred not only in North Africa but also in mainland France, where agents of the French Republic trained by the Gestapo and SS were among those who murdered Algerians.
France was directly and deeply involved in despicable acts in Algeria, with no third-party persecutors to hide behind. The French first invaded the country in 1830. By the time the new colony was “settled” in 1875, an estimated 825,000 indigenous Algerians had been killed. More than 1 million European immigrants then gradually arrived. Algeria was soon classified as an overseas department — an integral part of France.
The governing regime that developed was quasi-apartheid, and the bloodletting was incessant. Poignantly, when Europe was celebrating the defeat of Nazi Germany on V-E Day — May 8, 1945 — France was brutally quelling peaceful anti-occupation protests in Algeria. Some 45,000 Algerian men, women and children were killed in the regions of Setif, Guelma and Kherrata.
The massacres intensified anti-colonial dissent, and the conflict became increasingly savage. After independence in 1962, the victorious National Liberation Front claimed that 1.5 million Algerians had been killed in the war, with double that number displaced from their homes.
These horrors are not simply of the past. This dark legacy carries on to the present.
France’s right-wing populist party, the National Rally — originally the National Front — was founded by extreme nationalists who resented the loss of Algeria. The National Front has included Third Reich sympathizers and Holocaust deniers, most notably its co-founder Pierre Bousquet who had served in the Charlemagne Waffen-SS Division, a Nazi unit made up of French nationals. Bousquet created the National Front along with Jean-Marie Le Pen, a former French soldier who had fought in Algeria and whose daughter Marine Le Pen is the current leader of the National Rally. She reacted to Macron’s latest words linking the two historical events by saying, “Comparing the Holocaust to the Algerian War is obscene.”
The Le Pens — who have both been runners-up in elections to become president of France — continue to whip up hatred toward those with Arab and Muslim ancestry. Like so many others in establishment France, and not just those on the right, they retain a colonial view of dark-skinned foreigners who will never qualify as truly French.
Most French citizens from Algerian backgrounds are kept in out-of-town housing estates, where they experience discrimination in every aspect of life. Prejudice against Islam is mainstream, with propagandists blaming every kind of wrongdoing on the Muslim community.
The past — and the politics of memory, as Macron calls it — is part of this poisonous narrative. Algerians who had to fight so ferociously for their freedom are portrayed, along with their descendants, as misfits who could never “integrate” into Gallic society. Because so few in positions of power acknowledge Algerian suffering, let alone memorialize it, wounds will not heal.
Just before his election in 2017, Macron admirably stated that French colonialism involved “crimes and acts of barbarism” that would today be prosecuted as “crimes against humanity.”
Surely it is time for him to finally make his Chirac moment an official one — to acknowledge his country’s genocide in Algeria, to commemorate the nation’s ordeal and to publicly announce: “Never Again” and “Never Forget.” It is not too late.