Can Macron's museum move help reignite France-Algeria ties?

Bitterness lingers on 60 years since the Evian Accords were signed – but there's hope

Belkacem Krim, the then vice president of the Provisional Government of the Algerian Republic, alongside Taieb Boulharouf, another delegate, arrive in Geneva for talks that eventually led to the Evian accords. AFP
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The signing of the Evian Accords on this day 60 years ago officially ended not only a bitter and bloody war of independence between France and Algeria but 132 years of colonial rule.

Named after the spa resort on the shores of Lake Geneva, where the French and Algerian delegations met to ratify its text, the 93-page agreement was meant to herald a new era of mutual respect and friendship.

Six decades later, however, it requires the naivest of views through rose-tinted spectacles to believe anything of the sort has been achieved.

Initially, the violence continued at levels comparable to what had occurred in seven years and four months of warfare. The pieds-noirs or "black feet", Algerian-European residents of overwhelmingly French birth or origin, fiercely opposed the surrender of "l'Algerie Francaise", the French possession that had given them a good life. Horrendous atrocities were committed by extremists against Algeria's Muslim population.

There was some collusion involving disenchanted French military figures. The then French president, Charles de Gaulle, survived assassination attempts starting soon after the accords were ratified by referendums held in each country; France voted by nearly 91 per cent in favour, Algeria almost unanimously.

For me, having militated for peace as a young man, it was a great day
Jack Lang on the signing of the Evian Accords

For their part, Algerian militants ignored the terms of the accords and carried out revenge murders of large numbers of Harkis, fellow Muslims seen as traitors because they had fought on France's side against the nationalists.

Algeria would later suffer further conflict, this time a 10-year civil war from 1991, once again accompanied by terrorist attacks on the former colonial power, including a foiled attempt to blow up a hijacked passenger jet above the Eiffel Tower in Paris or fly the plane into it.

Relations between the countries continue to be strained. People with roots in France's former Maghrebi and sub-Saharan African colonies, whether immigrants or born in France, feel like second-class citizens, discriminated against in employment, housing and education. France has Europe's largest population of Muslims and some French people, especially the sizeable minority drawn to far-right politicians, are unwelcoming and intolerant. The radicalisation and attraction to violence of a few, and the separatist instincts of more, cause disproportionate mistrust, fear and resentment.

One project that might improve post-independence Franco-Algerian relations and understanding – an ambitious museum dedicated to the shared history – has been repeatedly shelved in the 19 years since it was first announced.

An imposing location in the historic heart of the southern town of Montepellier was designated, a budget of €20 million ($22m) created and a collection of more than 5,000 objects, images and documents assembled.

From origins as a museum portraying "France in Algeria", the name underwent a subtle but significant change, becoming the Museum of France and Algeria. First there were delays in work on preparing the property. Then the project was cancelled by an incoming town council in 2014, a year before the museum was due to open. Supporters of the project suspected the authorities had bowed to pressure from organisations representing the pieds noirs, who had settled in large numbers in this and other southern towns after being driven from Algeria following independence. The council denied this, insisting the new municipal leadership simply had other priorities. A more modest museum of contemporary art was opened instead.

Now a Sunday newspaper, Le Journal du Dimanche, reports that the "phantom museum" is again a possibility following a report commissioned by President Emmanuel Macron on encouraging Franco-Algerian reconciliation.

The report was delivered in early 2021 by Benjamin Stora, an eminent French historian who was born in Constantine, a city east of Algiers, and lived as a child through the war of independence until his family joined the exodus that followed.

It was an initiative consistent with Mr Macron's policy of recognising France's historical sins while also being seen to stand firm against extremism and any rejection of French values, especially constitutional secularism.

In his 2017 election campaign, Mr Macron went further than any predecessor by admitting that French colonisation of Algeria had been a "crime against humanity". Decades on from independence, it was still a controversial declaration; until 1999, France had even refused to recognise that what occurred in North Africa between 1954 and 1962 was even a war.

Yet, friction between Paris and Algiers persists. Last year, a diplomatic row erupted when France said it would severely cut the number of visas granted to Algerians and other Maghrebis because of alleged lack of co-operation over the deportation of those deemed undesirable by the French authorities.

Five years on from his groundbreaking acknowledgement of past wrongs, and broadly expected to win a second term in next month's presidential election, Mr Macron favours a museum that embraces culture and science and appeals to young people.

One aide told Le Journal du Dimanche that the President wanted a museum that would "radiate beyond its walls" but conceded it was unlikely to become a reality before 2025 at the earliest.

If the project does finally materialise, will it help relations between the countries and their peoples flourish as the Evian Accords hoped they would? Former culture minister Jack Lang, now president of the Paris-based Arab World Institute, believes it will.

The institute is marking the anniversary of independence in its own ways, notably with an exhibition of Algerian art – "Algeria My Love" – that will run until July.

"The President was not born until many years after this horrible war ended," Mr Lang told The National. "But he has a very positive vision and has taken many initiatives to recognise France's responsibilities. He wants to create the museum. We have been consulted and it will take some months to establish the concept, but it's a great project."

And despite the legacy of grievance and failure, Mr Lang, a former socialist minister now aged 82, celebrates the anniversary of Evian. "For me, having militated for peace as a young man, it was a great day. And I feel very optimistic about relations between our two peoples, especially the young who have not known this terrible period of war."

Anyone who subscribes to the commendable French notion of "vivre ensemble" – different communities living together in harmony – must hope Mr Lang's optimism is justified.

Published: March 18, 2022, 4:00 AM