French reconciliation with Algeria needs more than words

Apologies and admissions go some of the way in addressing the wrongs of colonialism, but they are not enough

FILE - In this July 3, 2020 file photo, a soldier guards the remains of 24 Algerians at the Moufdi-Zakaria culture palace in Algiers, Friday, July, 3, 2020. After decades in a French museum, the skulls of 24 Algerians decapitated for resisting French colonial forces were formally repatriated to Algeria. French President Emmanuel Macron wants to take further steps to reckon with France's colonial-era wrongs in Algeria but is not considering an official apology, his office said.(AP Photo/Toufik Doudou, File)
Powered by automated translation

The 1950s was a time of decolonisation for much of the Middle East. In Egypt, the rise of president Gamel Abdel Nasser ended Britain's dominance there. Nasser's victory in the 1956 Suez Crisis showed other colonies that they, too, could achieve self-determination. By the 1960s, most were well on their way to independence, if not already there.

Egypt's transition from colony to independent nation-state happened in a matter of days. Others were not so lucky. Algeria's war with its imperial ruler France dragged on for almost a decade, and claimed between 400,000 and 1.5 million lives. The conflict traumatised both nations. Algeria's anti-colonial movement soon became oppressive, paving the way for a future civil war. For France, hundreds of thousands of "pieds-noirs" – long-term French residents of Algeria – fled the only home they had ever known. The war even led to a failed coup attempt in the nation by disgruntled soldiers.

France's current president, Emmanuel Macron, is now discussing his nation's colonial legacy more than any other leader in Paris to date. In 2017, before being elected to office, he called France's imperial past in Algeria a "crime against humanity". Last week, after the release of a much-anticipated report, Mr Macron announced the creation of a "memories and truth" commission that aims to reconcile its fraught relations with Algiers.

epa08952621 French President Emmanuel Macron meets historian Benjamin Stora for the delivery of the report on the memory of the colonisation and the Algerian war at the Elysee Palace in Paris, France, January 20, 2021.  EPA/CHRISTIAN HARTMANN / POOL  MAXPPP OUT
France is starting to acknowledge the wrongs of its colonial past. EPA
Governments also fear that official statements of contrition pave the way for more concrete and costly demands from ex-colonies

He has ruled out an official apology, a missed opportunity in the minds of some to heal not only bilateral relations, but also some of the intergenerational trauma within his nation's large Algerian-French community.

Apologies for colonial-era abuses can have real consequence. In 2019, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the head of the Church of England, prostrated himself as a gesture of contrition in front of a memorial to the 1919 Amritsar Massacre in India. Many Indians took this as a sincere apology for the killings on the part of many Britons, even though London has never formally issued one.

Indeed, the leaders of former colonial powers often avoid apologies of this kind, being wary of criticism from voters who see no reason why they should be answerable for the actions of their ancestors. Governments also fear that official statements of contrition pave the way for more concrete and costly demands from ex-colonies.

Apologies also risk being manipulated into nothing more than verbal exercises in dodging true responsibility. Words will not be enough for former imperial powers to come to terms with their pasts. But they can be the starting point of important conversations.

The modern-day anti-colonial movement advocates deeper analyses of the lasting effects of imperial legacies – not just on former colonies, but on citizens with heritage rooted in those nations. Activists propose tackling the social exclusion and inequality that often have a disproportionate impact on these communities, as well gestures to counter outdated, celebratory narratives that glorify colonialism.

For those fully committed to atoning for the sins of their predecessors, the fundamental basis for real solutions is greater, more objective awareness of how their countries profited unfairly from others. Until this happens, the divisions of 70 years ago will continue to limit the vitality of the West's dialogue with much of the world.