France/Algeria: towards a "truth and memory" commission?

It is "a process of recognition" but "there is no question of repentance" and "apologising", said the office of the French president. On 20 January, Emmanuel Macron received a report by the historian Benjamin Stora on the colonisation and the war in Algeria. The main recommendation of this report is the creation of a joint "Memory and Truth" commission. Commemorations, restitution, recognition of certain crimes, publication of lists of the disappeared, access to archives, creation of places of memory are among the other proposals. Four years after Macron described colonisation as a "crime against humanity", France is preparing to confront its Algerian past.

Graffiti sur un quai de Seine à Paris :
"Here we drown Algerians." On 17 October 1961, in Paris, dozens of Algerian demonstrators were killed by the police, some of whom were thrown into the Seine river. The memory of this bloody repression will be one of the three days of commemoration planned by the French president.
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President Emmanuel Macron has ruled out issuing an official apology for abuses committed in Algeria, his office said Wednesday, as a major report called for a “truth commission” to shed light on France’s colonial past.

The French presidency said there was “no question of showing repentance” or of “presenting an apology” for the occupation of Algeria or the bloody eight-year war that ended 132 years of French rule.

Presidential aides said it was more important to end the culture of “denial and things left unsaid” surrounding France’s past in Algeria and said that Macron would undertake “symbolic acts” of reconciliation.

Historian Benjamin Stora, commissioned by the president with assessing the progress made by France on confronting its past, in a report Wednesday described a “never-ending memory war” between the former colonial power and colony, locked in “competing (claims of) victimisation”.

Stora made a number of proposals, including the creation of a mixed French-Algerian “memory and truth commission” that would hear testimony from people who suffered during the Algerian war and drive efforts at reconciliation.

The atrocities committed by both sides during the 1954-1962 Algerian war of independence continue to strain relations between the two countries six decades later.

Macron, the first president born after the colonial period, has gone further than any of his predecessors in recognising crimes committed by French forces.

But he has drawn the line at an official apology, vehemently opposed by many on the French right who view acts of national repentance as acts of betrayal.

Some of the “symbolic acts” planned by Macron include taking part in three days of commemorations next year marking the 60th anniversary of the end of the Algerian war, said a presidential aide, who asked not to be named.

One of the days will mark the crackdown on a demonstration by Algerians in France in 1961. Another will commemorate the “Harkis” — Algerians who fought alongside French forces in Algeria and who were forced to flee after the war.

The commemorations were among some of the proposals made by Stora, who said that acknowledging past wrongs is more important than offering apologies.

Legacy of torture

No other event in France’s colonial history had as deep an impact on the national psyche as the Algerian war.

More than one million French conscripts saw service in the conflict, which claimed hundreds of thousands of Algerian lives.

While campaigning for president in 2017 Macron riled right-wingers by declaring that the colonisation of Algeria was a “crime against humanity”.

A year later, he acknowledged that France had instigated a system that facilitated torture during the Algerian war, a rare admission in a country where the colonisation of Algeria was long seen as benign.

“In French political culture, anti-colonialism has always been an extremely fringe movement,” historian Sylvie Thenault told AFP.

“There is a profound conviction that the French Republic is a force for good that thwarts the possibility of criticising what is done in the name of the Republic,” she added.

‘Truth and reconciliation’

France’s crackdown on the Algerian independence movement, including its liberal use of torture, left a deep well of bitterness and resentment that Macron has linked to the issue of radicalisation among second- and third-generation north African immigrants.

But there are longstanding grievances on other sides too.

After independence hundreds of thousands of European settlers fearing retribution fled to France, a wrenching exodus that sowed the seeds of the anti-Arab sentiment that fuelled the rise of the far right.

Many “Harkis” meanwhile were left to the mercy of lynch mobs after the war, while those who managed to escape to France found themselves interned in World War II camps.

Speaking to Jeune Afrique magazine in November, Macron described France as being “locked in a sort of pendulum between two stances: apologising and repentance on the one hand and denial and pride on the other.

“As for myself I would like truth and reconciliation,” he said.

Some of Macron’s predecessors had also taken steps to break the wall of silence surrounding France’s past in Algeria.

Jacques Chirac acknowledged the massacre of civilians in the town of Setif in 1945 and in 2012 Francois Hollande recognised the “suffering” caused by the colonisation.

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