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CWA # 605, 4 November 2021

NIAS Europe Monitor
France, Algeria, and the politics over an apology

  Vaishnavi Iyer

Far-right members like Marine Le Pen have criticized the effort labeling it an attempt to trigger a "memory war" in France.

In October, Macron repeatedly apologized to Algeria to reconcile and strengthen bilateral ties with the region. In 2021, Macron launched the "Memories and Truth" commission to openly discuss France's role in Algeria, and to "look clearly at the wounds of the past''.

Why is France apologizing? What has been the Algerian response? What difference does the apology make? 

A brief background 
During his election campaign, Macron had referred to colonization as a "crime against humanity." Unlike his predecessors, Macron acknowledged the murder of Maurice Audin and recognized the torture committed against Algeria. He also mentioned that France had unresolved "traumas" from its colonial past that needed attention. 
In October, a French-Algerian spat erupted over the former's unilateral decision to impose visa restrictions on Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco. The visa limitations were in reaction to latter's refusal to accept unauthorized migrants. In response, Algeria withdrew its French ambassador. Amidst rising tensions, Macron expressed his wish to have cordial relations with Algeria. Admitting France's mistreatment of Harkis, he asked for "forgiveness" from the families of Algerians who fought alongside the French. 

The Harkis were denied resettlement in France and were mostly ostracized. In his speech asking for forgiveness, Macron stated the French attempt to "bandage" wounds through "words of truth." His government pledged EUR 4.71 million inclusive of pension provisions and laws to protect the children of Harkis. The address elicited mixed responses. Media reports on Macron's address to the descendants of Algeria's War of Independence were met with heavy criticisms, as Algeria reminded France of the "genocides" committed by French colonizers. The remarks made by Macron were seen as interfering in Algeria's internal affairs. The Algerian government insisted on the recognition of the shared colonial history of Algeria and France. 

Following a diplomatic row over visas and remarks from Paris, Algerian President demanded "total respect." The Algerian government responded by prohibiting French military planes from entering its airspace. Tebboune said: "We forget that it [Algeria] was once a French colony...History should not be falsified." 

The comments mentioned in Le Monde, report Macron stating that a "political-military system governed Algeria." According to Macron, Algeria's official history has been rewritten to encourage anti-French sentiment. The newspaper also remarked that the comments were directed at Algeria's ruling elite rather than the Algerian society as a whole. While Macron hopes for talks in the future, Algeria has declared that the return of its ambassador to France is contingent on France paying "full respect" to Algeria. The bilateral relations between France and Algeria got complicated when Macron in 2020, tasked Benjamin Stora, a historian, to prepare a report about France's colonial legacy in Algeria. The report was heavily criticized due to its biased nature and absence of recommendations to issue apologies or reparations to the victims. With Macron's speech, France is faced with challenges on the social justice front by denying history to the oppressed. Moreover, the opportunity cost is not only social but affects security concerns. French military planes on locating jihadists in the Sahel region were required to travel through the Algerian airspace but could not do so because of the ban. 

As relations strain over historical and contemporary differences, acknowledging the past by the political class is still dominating the narrative. Truth commissions are set to understand the "past pattern of human rights abuses," as explained by Priscilla Hayner. The investigations end with a report and recommendations. Such commissions attempt to rebuild relations and a form of reckoning and allow for distributive justice measures. France, however, seems late to the apology, amnesty, or even criminal justice. Despite the late apology, Algerians are keen on obtaining answers. The essential nature of the Algerian traumas has given relevance to the French apology.
In contrast, one could look at the event as elite colonists finally "bestowing" an acknowledgment of their past. Algeria is disappointed with the appointment of Stora over the presiding historical account provided by Algeria. France is home to a large Algerian immigrant population. As of July 2021, 505,587 Algerians reside in France. It is difficult to assess the impact of an apology, especially after it comes 60 years later, in a different demographic and political setup. The sincerity of the apology would be gauged after France formulates reparations and the promised policy efforts to help the Harki descendants and immigrants. However, the apology raises questions on the Algerian identity and self-assertion. Most immigrants interviewed on the question have stated reluctance to play the victim of French colonization, which could only be solved with an apology. One interviewee stated: "I wanted to both honor the past and assert my freedom from it." Thus, the question of truth bringing reckoning and reconciliation remains unanswered.

The politics of apology
For the French, the apology has created a new battleground in the upcoming elections. Far-right members like Marine Le Pen have criticized the effort labeling it an attempt to trigger a "memory war" in France. Echoing a similar sentiment, Eric Zemmour played on the past nostalgia and portrayed the cultural threat posed by African immigrants who may dissolve France into a global conglomerate, devoid of the real French culture. Thus, France remains divided over the issue of acknowledging its colonial past. On the other hand, the war talk serves as an excuse for radicals from former colonies to stay isolated. Some draw their justifications from the discomfort of banlieues and refuse to integrate into society. This, in turn, leads to criticisms of the Algerian response. For Algerian politics, Macron's speech on the authoritarian nature of the state may have garnered support from the citizens opposing the military influence in its politics. However, the larger part of the speech focused on remarks about Algeria sustaining itself with "memorial rent" and questioning its identity before the French rule. While this does not indicate a shift in Algerian politics, Algeria's response remains cold. With statements contradicting actions on the French side, the French-Algerian divide may not heal immediately. 

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