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The Politics of Macron’s Commemoration of the Algerian War

The Politics of Macron’s Commemoration of the Algerian War
 Hakim El Karoui
Former Senior Fellow - Arab World, Islam
 Mahaut de Fougières
Head of the International Politics Program

The "duty to remember" is a cause dear to Emmanuel Macron’s heart, as it was to his mentor, the French philosopher Paul Ricoeur. Memory and remembrance have been important issues since the beginning of the French President’s term: in November 2018, a week of "itinérance mémorielle" was initiated to commemorate the centenary of World War I, with visits to 17 cities, and numerous ceremonies and meetings to discuss the Great War; in April 2019, the Elysée set up a commission of historians on Rwanda, chaired by Sciences Po professor Vincent Duclert, guaranteeing them full access to civilian and military archives. However, it was the Algerian War (1954-1962) that Macron has primarily focused on commemorating throughout his presidential term. During his term, the President has initiated several initiatives to further the nation’s remembrance of this episode in French history, culminating in the Stora report published in January 2021. Over a year later, on March 18 is celebrated the 60th anniversary of the Evian Accords, which ended the Algerian War and formally declared Algeria’s full independence from France. 

Facing up to France’s past in Algeria

In their own way, Emmanuel Macron’s predecessors were all concerned with acknowledging difficult historical truths. Shortly after he was elected, Jacques Chirac’s historic speech on July 16, 1995, acknowledged France’s responsibility for the deportation of French Jews to Germany during World War II. It was also under President Chirac that the use of the term "Algerian War" as opposed to previous references to "events" was formalized by the law of October 18, 1999. However, Chirac’s presidential term was also marked by his failure to prevent the passing of a February 2005 law praising "the positive role of colonization." During his presidential campaign Nicolas Sarkozy, proposed recognizing France’s responsibility for abandoning the Harkis - Muslims who served as auxiliaries in the French Army during the Algerian war - a recognition that was granted at the end of his term in 2012. In October of the same year, only a few months after coming to power, it was François Hollande’s turn to recognize the massacre of Algerians in Paris on October 17, 1961, in accordance with the promises he made during his own presidential campaign. 

It is Macron’s presidency that has marked the most significant steps towards remembering the Algerian War, which was made a priority during his five-year term. 

But it is Macron’s presidency that has marked the most significant steps towards remembering the Algerian War, which was made a priority during his five-year term. President Macron compared the importance of this "historical challenge" to Chirac’s acknowledgment of the Shoah in 1995. As early as February 2017, during a campaign trip to Algeria, he denounced colonialism as a "crime against humanity," attracting some opposition in France. In September 2018, a year after his election, President Macron made an important gesture by visiting the widow of the mathematician Maurice Audin, who was tortured and killed in 1957 by the French army in Algeria.

Macron asked for her forgiveness and recognized the French state’s responsibility in the death of her husband. This was followed by other gestures of recognition, forgiveness and restitution: the handing over to Algeria in July 2020-on the 58th anniversary of its independence-of twenty-four skulls of resistance fighters that were beheaded in the 19th century; the recognition in March 2021 of the French army’s 1957 torture and murder of the Algerian lawyer and nationalist leader Ali Boumendjel during the Battle of Algiers; asking for forgiveness, in September 2021, for the abandonment of the Harkis, followed by the reparation law of February 2022; the recognition on January 26, 2022, of the March 1962 massacre of pieds-noirs (people of French and other European origins, who were born in Algeria when it was Franch-ruled) in Algiers; and the President’s tribute to the nine peaceful demonstrators for Algerian independence killed by the police at the Charonne metro station on February 8, 1962. However, in this last case, Macron emphasized the responsibility of Maurice Papon - a French civil servant known for participating in the deportation of Jews during WWII and his torture strategies during the Algerian war - over that of the State itself. In continuing this duty to remember, the French President has also increased access to the Algerian War archives. 

Despite these efforts, however, President Macron failed to receive a response from the Algerian government. After criticizing "the leaders of this country for exploiting Algeria’s history with France for their own political gain" and thus stalling reconciliations, Emmanuel Macron launched a new initiative, with the aim of reconciling various memories-regardless of whether those memories were pied-noir, Algerian Jew, Harki, Arab or Kabyle. On September 30, 2021, he thus invited 18 youths from families who had intimately experienced the Algerian War, to have an open discussion about the conflict. 

Reconciling memories 

Perhaps the President’s most important act of remembrance was the mission he assigned to the Algerian-born historian Benjamin Stora on July 24, 2020, with the aim of "commemorating colonization and the Algerian War." Published in January 2021, the Stora report laid the foundations for the future of the commemoration policy. Several of the initiatives recommended in this report were subsequently implemented by Macron. 

In France, the report provoked mixed reactions. General Longuet, President of the National Union of Combatants, said the report lacked consideration for French soldiers who had fought in the war, and that "France cannot commemorate the implementation of the Evian Accords, because it did not bring an end to violence and death." An opinion piece was written by Harki women, denouncing Benjamin Stora’s bias against their community. The President, for his part, nevertheless continued to initiate gestures towards the Harkis.  

The Algerian government accused the report of "obscuring the legitimate demands of Algeria, in particular an official recognition by France of both the war crimes and crimes against humanity perpetrated during their one-hundred-and-thirty-year occupation of Algeria." Moreover, the report’s recommendation to withhold from using the term "repentance" vis-à-vis Algeria was denounced by the Algerian authorities. Although they acknowledge France’s increased efforts, Algeria still considers them insufficient. 

The report’s recommendation to withhold from using the term "repentance" vis-à-vis Algeria was denounced by the Algerian authorities. 

Additionally, Emmanuel Macron’s own words have at times undermined his actions. This was the case with his criticism of post-1962 Algerian governments, which he accused of "exploiting Algeria’s history with France", blaming France for all the ills of the Algerian nation. During this same meeting with youths whose families had experienced the Algerian War, Le Monde reported that he also questioned the existence of an Algerian nation before French colonization. This happened only a few days after Paris announced a reduction in visas granted to Algerian, Moroccan and Tunisian nationals, following these countries’ refusals to repatriate nationals living in France illegally. This resulted in a crisis between Paris and Algiers, including the withdrawal of the Algerian ambassador to France, who did not return to his posting until January 6, 2022.

The French President’ efforts to "reconcile history", however, cannot succeed without Algerian involvement. When he recognized the March 1962 massacre in Algiers, he demanded that Algeria would also recognize the massacre of Europeans in Oran on July 5, 1962 - the first time a French president had asked Algeria to recognize a bloody episode of the war. Emmanuel Macron also campaigned for Algeria to launch a parallel report to the Stora report, and the Algerian President, Abdelmadjid Tebboune, appointed Abdelmadjid Chikhi, director-general of the Algerian national archive, to carry out a similar "work of truth.

Unfinished business 

As we are confronted, albeit indirectly, with a new war, in Ukraine, what place will this debate on the history of the Algerian War occupy in the French presidential campaign, as well as the next five-year presidential term? The words of some candidates, particularly those of the far right, do not bode well for the mutual harmony and respect required to continue France's commemoration of the Algerian War. Eric Zemmour, who comes from a family of Berber Jews from Algeria, believes that repentance is "not even a subject for discussion" and has called on Algeria to stop "considering France as the outlet for its demographic excess." Marine Le Pen has repeatedly denounced the gestures made by the President, preferring to emphasize the "pride of being French." On the other hand, if re-elected, Emmanuel Macron will likely continue the work that he has begun. 


Co-written with the help of Anissa Nabi


Copyright: Ryad KRAMDI / AFP

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