When will France move beyond its colonial narrative?
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By: Shannon Ebrahim, Group Foreign Editor
Most colonial occupiers shared the common racist and superior notion that before their arrival, their colonial subjects lacked a sense of nationhood or civility.
It is the most despicable form of colonial hubris which should have been relegated to the dustbin of history when the colonial curtain lifted from Africa. With the passage of time, one would have thought such notions were no longer acceptable and would be treated with the contempt they deserve.
Which is what makes the remarks of French President Emmanuel Macron last weekend all the more baffling. This is a president who entered office calling colonialism a crime against humanity, and admitted to the use of torture by the French colonial state in Algeria. But four years down the line he has publicly posed the question: “Was there an Algerian nation before French colonisation?”
The Algerian government predictably condemned the comments with the outrage they deserved, with the Algerian presidency putting out a statement that Macron’s remarks were “an intolerable affront to the memory of the 5 630 000 valiant martyrs who sacrificed their lives in their heroic resistance of the French colonial invasion.”
Algeria was quick to take several measures to underscore its outrage, including summoning the French ambassador to inform them that the president’s comments were the last straw, recalling the Algerian ambassador to France, and banning French military planes from flying over Algerian airspace. France often flies through Algerian airspace to reach the Sahel region of West Africa as part of Operation Barkhane, and will not have to make alternative plans.
What was even more perturbing is the fact that Macron’s comments were made to a gathering of the grandchildren of Harkis – Algerians who had sided with the French colonial state and fought against the National Liberation Front (FLN) – which led the fight for independence. The Harkis were in effect those complicit in colonial crimes against the Algerian people across the 132-year occupation by the French state.
Macron shocked Algeria and the world last month when he honoured the descendants of Harkis and asked them for forgiveness for their ill-treatment by the French state. Honouring those who collaborated with France during the war France waged against the forces fighting for freedom and independence suggests that even the younger generation of political leaders in France have not transformed from the colonial mindset.
Anyone familiar with the Algerian war of independence will know the lengths to which the French colonial occupiers and their local collaborators tortured and brutalised those who resisted occupation and fought for independence. A visit to a museum in Algiers is instructive – scenes of French torture chambers during the Battle for Algiers in which Algerian resistance fighters are being electrocuted, beaten, hung by their limbs and decapitated, and other forms of despicable torture that is rarely acknowledged by the French state. How any modern day leader would want to honour the descendants of such collaborators is strange in the extreme, and deeply disturbing.
For those not aware of the Algerian struggle for independence the movie The Battle of Algiers is highly recommended. But having been exposed through historical accounts, documents and records to the horrors of French colonialism, it is reprehensible that Macron and his administration have made it clear that there will be “no apologies” for France’s colonisation of Algeria.
The refusal to take accountability for France’s gross violations of human rights makes it all the harder for genuine reconciliation to take place between the two countries. But in the wake of the most recent official comments, the general consensus within Algeria is that Macron’s supposed commitment to healing colonial wounds and forging better relations with Algeria is nothing but a ruse.
As Algerians struggle to comprehend the latest offensive utterances, some believe that the comments have been made by Macron in an attempt to win over right-wing votes before April 2022 presidential elections. Racism, xenophobia and glorification of colonialism are all sure to score points with the right-wing in France, but at what cost to France’s reputation, historical justice and transformation?
In a battle for the soul of France, with Marine Le Pen posing stiff competition, Macron has notably swung to the Right over the past six months, especially with regard to Islam in France, and France’s colonial legacy. This political opportunism comes at a massive cost to France’s social cohesion.
Algerians and other North Africans have been targeted in France and harassed by local authorities, mosques and Muslim charities shut down, and there is a growing intolerance towards those who are considered Muslim and former colonial subjects.
Macron will surely have lost any leftist supporters he may have had in the past, and whether he or Le Pen were to win next year, France’s political trajectory is set on a course that is far from progressive.
* Shannon Ebrahim, Group Foreign Editor