Hollande faces France’s bitter colonial past in Algeria

Text by: Assiya HAMZA
5 min

Fifty years after the end of Algeria’s bloody war of independence, President François Hollande is visiting France's former colony amid new hopes of reconciliation. The question on Algerian minds is whether France will offer an apology.


reporting from Algiers

It's a prickly question Algeria has been dealing with for a decade: Is France ready to apologise for its colonial past? And as President François Hollande begins an official visit to the North African country on Wednesday, that question is more pressing than ever.

The two countries have never fully reconciled since the bloody 1954-1962 war, which ended with Algeria’s liberation and whose scars are akin to those left on a generation of Americans and Vietnamese who fought in and endured the consequences of the Vietnam War.

Billboards marking the 50th anniversary of Algeria's independence are ubiquitous in the capital.
Billboards marking the 50th anniversary of Algeria's independence are ubiquitous in the capital.

Algerian authorities have claimed as many as 1.5 million people died during the eight-year conflict, while French estimates set a much lower figure of 350,000. Both Algerian and French civilians were often the target of attacks, while hundreds of thousands on both sides were uprooted because of the war.

Anger has subsided over the years, but bursts of deep-seated resentment are still occasionally on display. Reacting in November to news that an Algerian minister representing war veterans was planning on requesting “open recognition of the crimes perpetrated by French colonialism,” former defence minister Gerard Longuet made a vulgar gesture that was caught by a TV talk-show camera.

Indeed, there is little chance Hollande could avoid addressing the two nations’ difficult past during his two-day stay. Algeria celebrated 50 years of independence this past July with state ceremonies, and Hollande came to power in May promising a clean break with his conservative predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy.

The apology question became a bitter point of contention between Sarkozy and Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika starting in 2007.

But even as expectations for a symbolic statement or gesture from France’s new head of state have been building on both sides of the Mediterranean, Algerians themselves remain divided over what message is appropriate.

‘France must apologise’

For Rachid Tlemçani, a political science professor at the University of Algiers and an analyst, the question of whether France still owes Algeria an apology hides other agendas. “It’s ideological manipulation,” he says.

Rachid Tlemçani, political science professor at the University of Algiers.
Rachid Tlemçani, political science professor at the University of Algiers.

“It’s a false debate, for the simple reason that the colonial question was settled in 1962,” Tlemçani argues. “It is only sustained by extremist groups on either side of the Mediterranean who try to exploit it for their own interests.”

Nevertheless, a majority of Algerians seem eager for a gesture of repentance from Paris. “For 50 years France has put off an apology,” Mohamed, a 25-year-old airplane steward says. “Sarkozy did not want to do it, but Hollande must.”

Fatima, a 24-year-old university student in the capital of Algiers, says the apology should not just focus on the war. “There were 132 years of occupation, France did great things in Algeria, but we can’t forget that today there are still French landmines [left behind from the war] that maim children.”

According to Mohamed Chafik Mesbah, a former officer in Algeria’s intelligence agency and a frequent commentator in the media, the government of Bouteflika has exploited France’s lack of an apology for cohesion within his own FLN party –which has been in power for 50 years– and for support from voters.

“He united his political family around this demand,” Mesbah said. “Algerians are interested in French repentance on a symbolic level, but the government is only interested in rallying public support.”

Kamel, a 48-year-old civil servant, says ordinary Algerians are ready for reconciliation with their French counterparts, but not the leaders in power. “The system is run by those who were on the frontlines. They want more than an apology, they want reparations.”

Light at the end of the tunnel?

While full reconciliation appears to remain far away, recent gestures by Hollande hint at thawing relations. In November the French president championed a bill that established March 19 as an annual remembrance day for the victims, both civilian and military, of the Algerian war.

He has also admitted that Algerians were massacred at an independence rally in Paris in 1961, ending decades of silence over a police crackdown historians say may have killed more than 200 people.

In response, Algeria’s Bouteflika has appeared conciliatory, telling the media it was time to “transcend some onerous episodes” to forge a “strong and dynamic relationship” with France.

Nevertheless, the question of an implied or even outright apology will hang over Hollande as he visits Algerian officials and signs potentially lucrative business deals.

Observers say a key moment in the visit will come when Hollande stops in the western town of Tlemcen, Bouteflika’s hometown. Many hope to hear the word that will finally turn the page on a long and troubled history.

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