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'Massacres' in French-ruled Algeria, French ambassador

Latest update : 2008-04-29

In an historic gesture of atonement, the French ambassador to Algeria used the word "massacre" to describe the violent repression of Algerians demonstrating against France on May 8, 1945. Read our interview with historian Benjamin Stora.

Scroll down to read our interview with renowned historian Benjamin Stora.

France's envoy to Algeria said Sunday it was time for his country to own up to "horrific massacres" committed at the end of World War II during its colonial rule in this North African country.

It was the first time a French official publicly described as massacres three dark episodes in 1945 in which French colonial authorities violently suppressed demonstrations by Algerians demanding independence.

"However hard the truth may be, France no longer intends to cover it up," Bernard Bajolet told students. "The time of denial is over."

According to Algerian statistics, some 45,000 perished in the suppression while the French have hitherto claimed that the numbers were between 1,500 and 8,000.

Speaking at Guelma in eastern Algeria, the ambassador recalled what happened 63 years ago in this and two other towns, Setif and Kherrata.

"On May 8, 1945 (the date of the end of World War II), while Algerians together with Europeans throughout the country celebrated victory over Nazism in which Algerians played an important part, horrific massacres were taking place in Setif, Guelma and Kherrata," said Bajolet.

The envoy stressed "the very heavy responsibility of the French authorities of that time for this outburst of murderous madness claiming thousands of innocent victims, almost all of them Algerians."

The massacres "insulted the very founding principles of the French Republic and marked its history with an indelible stain," said Bejolet.

Algeria later won independence from France after a war between French security forces and Algerian liberation fighters that lasted from 1954 to 1962.

Bajolet's predecessor as French ambassador, Hubert Colin de Verdiere, had earlier described the 1945 episodes as an inexcusable tragedy.

The question of France's repentance for suppression during its colonial rule in Algeria between 1830 and 1962 has affected relations between the two countries for the last three years, blocking signature of a friendship pact proposed by France's former president Jacques Chirac and Algerian head of state Abdelaziz Bouteflika.

Chirac's successor Nicolas Sarkozy has since abandoned the project.

Bajolet's remarks followed a speech five months ago by Sarkozy at Constantine University in eastern Algeria, in which he admitted to what he described as unpardonable past crimes by France in Algeria.

Algerian Interior Minister Yazid Zerhouni said afterwards that while Sarkozy's remarks were "a step in the right direction... we still say it is not enough."



THREE QUESTIONS: Benjamin Stora, noted North Africa scholar and history professor at the University of Paris

What’s your opinion about French Ambassador to Algeria Bernard Bajolet’s recent comments on the May 8, 1945 massacres?

It’s a sign of recognition for what happened during colonization. The process began back in 2005, when the former French ambassador to Algeria described the events of May 1945 as an “inexcusable tragedy”. But this time, we’re talking about “massacres”. What this means, is that we’ve gone past the state of an admission of a tragedy to a qualification of the facts. We’re not yet in the realm of politics of excuses, but in a recognition phase.

Why this declaration after 63 years?

It’s part of a process. As I mentioned, the remarks by (ex-French Ambassador to Algeria) Colin de Verdière in 2005, then a speech by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, Dec. 5, 2007 in (the Algerian city of) Constantine and on Sunday, the latest remarks in (the eastern Algerian town of) Guelma. Since 2005, there has been a gradual shift away from the discourse of non-repentance prevalent in France over the years.

But don’t you think successive Algerian governments have also politically exploited this issue?

Yes, the Algerian political establishment has always exploited history. But at the same time, it’s also an important issue for Algerian society. The events of May 1945 are also part of the Algerian national identity. Obviously there’s an element of exploitation, but there’s also a strong streak of nationalism in Algerian society.

Interview by Tahar Hani


Date created : 2008-04-28