Will France's attempts to recognise past wrongs survive?

When French MPs recently voted to condemn the 1961 police killings of Algerian protesters, it irritated a far right whose anti-immigration narrative is becoming more mainstream

French police arrest Algerian campaigners in Puteaux, west of Paris, on October 17, 1961. Estimates vary but some suggest up to 300 protesters were killed by police before, during and after a banned pro-independence demonstration. AFP
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A few months before his election as French president in 2012, Francois Hollande stood over a Parisian bridge and threw a single red rose into the Seine to honour those killed in a police massacre of Algerians who defied a ban on a pro-independence demonstration.

His gesture marked the 50th anniversary of the killings. A plaque at the bridge in Clichy, the suburb where many demonstrators lived, called the dead “victims of blind repression”.

It seems remarkable that a further 13 years should have passed before the French parliament could bring itself to pass a resolution condemning the killings of October 17, 1961.

Proposed by MPs from President Emmanuel Macron’s majority Renaissance and the Greens, last month’s motion used terms similar to the inscription on the plaque, attributing the loss of life to "bloody and murderous repression". It also called for the event to be granted official commemoration.

The move was praised by the Algerian government, just as Mr Hollande’s gesture was welcomed in 2011. Then, Benjamin Stora, one of France’s leading experts on North African history and born in Algeria into a Jewish family, hailed a first step towards "recognising one of the biggest French tragedies".

What remains to be seen is whether France’s frequently rocky relations with its former colonies in the Maghreb and elsewhere will experience lasting improvement in the light of this symbolic acknowledgement of a dark past. For some, the resolution will seem too little, too late; others will be sceptical about the extent to which it reflects French political opinion.

For decades, the massacre was covered up by the authorities. The number of dead was grossly underestimated – the Paris police prefecture initially said there were only three fatalities – and even a government commission in 1998 put the total as just 48. Historians differ even now but some estimates suggest up to 300 people were killed before, during and after the protest, many of them crudely thrown by police into the Seine, already dead or to drown.

Maurice Papon, the police chief who ordered police to attack demonstrators, was motivated by a spirit of vengeance after bombings by Algeria’s National Liberation Front (FLN) left 11 officers dead in just over two months. Awarded the Legion of Honour by President Charles de Gaulle three months before the massacre, he was later exposed and jailed as a Nazi collaborator who had participated in the deportation of 1,600 Jews, most dying in Auschwitz and other death camps.

No amount of retrospective atonement can remove the stain on France’s reputation left by the 1961 massacre.

Yet each attempt to recognise past mistreatment of French Muslims causes irritation to the far right, more than ever looking capable of taking power. Its figurehead, Marine Le Pen, parliamentary leader of National Rally (formerly the National Front), is ahead in polls on presidential voting intentions.

When Mr Hollande marked the 50th anniversary in 2011, Ms Le Pen asked whether “all these repentances” fuelled hostility towards France among younger people of Algerian origin. She demanded reciprocal regret from Algeria for "thousands of deaths and mutilations" at the hands of the FLN.

Sixty-three years after the Paris massacre, the far right view remains essentially unchanged. Ms Le Pen’s MPs lined up to oppose the parliamentary resolution. One, Frank Giletti, a politician with the National Rally, denounced it as a leftwing initiative aimed at "destabilising our country through lies… alternating between unilateral accusation [against the police] and excess repentance”.

His defence of the police, arguing that officers were only following Papon’s orders for dealing with a forbidden demonstration, was an unfortunate reminder of an entrenched, divisive outlook that makes a mockery of notions of vivre ensemble, different communities co-existing in harmony.

No amount of retrospective atonement can remove the stain on France’s reputation left by the 1961 massacre

Even if such displays of populism can no longer be dismissed as the rantings of an irrelevant fringe, it is also arguable that criticism of France is not always wholly fair.

Mr Macron has also denounced the 1961 killings. On the 60th anniversary in 2021, he spoke of "unforgivable crimes" and later became the first French president to attend a ceremony commemorating victims.

As when he has admitted that France committed crimes against humanity during colonial rule, however, there was no formal apology. The Elysee Palace had a hand in drafting the resolution, which falls short of using the phrase “state crime”.

Algeria’s President Abdelmadjid Tebboune called the resolution a "positive gesture", a measured response perhaps reflecting that absence of more formal contrition.

Community relations in France are under permanent strain. French Arabs claim, often with good cause, that they face discrimination over jobs and in society more generally. They, in turn, are accused – not only by the extreme right – of resisting integration into French society and acceptance of its secular values. Fault is not one way, but it is foolish, and ultimately damaging to hopes of rapprochement, to ignore the legacy of colonialism.

France occasionally falls out with all the North African countries it once governed – Morocco and Tunisia as well as Algeria, where the fight for independence was bloodier – on a number of issues. Particularly contentious is the policy of substantially cutting the number of visas granted for French residency and new curbs limiting rights of citizenship and access to social benefits. Mainstream French parties often seem to be swayed by anti-immigration rightwing narrative.

Mr Macron and ministers have made some attempts to soothe bruised feelings, and the Algerian president is due in France for a state visit in the autumn. But acrimony surfaces whenever an Arab commits an act of terrorism or other serious crimes. Conversely, tensions boil over after incidents such as the killing of Nahel Merzouk, a 17-year-old with Algerian and Moroccan roots, shot dead during a police road check last June.

France enjoys good relations with the UAE and other Arab nations. Like all former colonial powers, however, it inspires some suspicion and resentment wherever it has ruled. Beyond the intermittent discord with countries of the Maghreb, anti-French protests are seen in much of West Africa, including Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso.

Mr Macron, despite some impetuosity, has sufficient statesmanlike qualities to navigate such crises. If Francafrique– not Gen de Gaulle’s term, but one accurately describing his strategy of using imperial African ties to preserve France’s status as a world power – now has a pejorative ring, the French President talks of seeking a “new, balanced, reciprocal, and responsible relationship” with the Francophone former colonies.

But will this conciliatory outlook survive his departure after his second term ends in 2027? There is a disheartening prospect he will be succeeded by Ms Le Pen, for so long a standard-bearer for the far right however much she disputes the label.

Ms Le Pen has worked hard to detoxify her party’s image in hopes of becoming France’s first female president. She remains an untried figure without experience of government or diplomacy, and is still seen by detractors as an Islamophobic demagogue.

Her foreign policy record is unconvincing: support for Brexit (and previously even for a French equivalent, Frexit), delight at electoral victories for Donald Trump in the US and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, long-standing admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin, albeit dropped after the invasion of Ukraine, and coolness towards Nato, the Franco-German axis underpinning the European Union and much of the EU’s workings.

On a domestic level, there is inevitable concern about her ability to interact with Europe’s largest Muslim population. How years of tub-thumping about the supposed Islamification of France might equip her for that task, let alone the need to deal with leaders of Arab and African worlds, is for now a mystery.

Published: April 09, 2024, 9:00 AM