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Why colonisation remains a political football in France

Sia Kambou, AFP | A man walks past a colonial-era building in Grand-Bassam, a former French colonial capital city and UNESCO World Heritage Site, on April 18, 2015
4 min

French presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron sparked uproar this week when he described French colonialism as a "crime against humanity". FRANCE 24 spoke to historian Pascal Blanchard about why it remains such a controversial subject in France.


Macron unequivocally condemned France’s colonial past in an interview broadcast on Algerian television station Echorouk this week, describing colonisation as a “crime against humanity”, adding that we cannot just "sweep away this past under the rug".

His comments sparked a storm of criticism among conservative and far-right parties in France, which has never officially apologised for its 132-year colonisation of Algeria.

Pascal Blanchard, a historian and researcher at the CNRS (National Center for Scientific Research) in Paris, specialising in colonialism and immigration in France, explains why the issue is so controversial.

FRANCE 24: Should colonisation be considered a "crime against humanity"?
Pascal Blanchard:
The definition of a crime against humanity is primarily a legal one. The problem is that colonisation is a very complex subject that is not as easy to define as for example slavery, which has been considered a "crime against humanity" under French law since 2001. There are different forms of colonialism: the more aggressive forms and the administrative type. Talking about colonisation as a simple phenomenon in order to define it as a "crime against humanity" is legally and historically complex. However, with regards to certain historical colonial events, such as the invasion of Algeria, the fighting in Cameroon in the 1950s, the wars of independence and the 1947 massacre in Madagascar, we could definitely consider defining them legally and historically as "crimes against humanity".

Why does France have so much trouble reconciling with its colonial past?
There are three reasons. Examining French colonial rule means acknowledging that France, at one time in its history, did not consider all men equal before the law. In addition, there are still millions of people in France of immigrant backgrounds connected with this colonial history. Lastly, France has plenty of museums but does not have a single one dedicated to its colonial past. Such a museum would enable us to learn about and hopefully reconcile with our colonial history. To sum up, sixty years after these countries gained independence, we still find ourselves discussing colonialism in an unhealthy way: be it in anger, emotionally or with shame. Just look at the National Front and the political right-wing’s reaction to Macron’s comments.

France's colonial past is still a hot topic in French politics. Why?
It remains an important topic in the run-up to elections. Nicolas Sarkozy expressed remorse about France’s colonial past during his 2007 presidential campaign in an attempt to win over far-right voters. Besides that, many French people still make a connection between France’s colonial past and current immigration. And lastly, France’s socialist left is extremely uncomfortable with this issue, because it has played a major role in French colonisation.

The French left’s reluctance to address the issue is one of the reasons Emmanuel Macron made his provocative comments. His comments are designed to put the François Mitterrand and Guy Mollet eras behind us, marking a fresh start for the left while the right fixates on colonial nostalgia and imperial grandeur. However, some people believe that to question colonisation means to criticise the colonial grandeur of France. And that’s why the issue of colonialism continues to cause upheaval, rather than becoming a part of history, like in Germany. Less than a year-and-a-half ago, Angela Merkel acknowledged the faults of the German colonial empire in Namibia and apologised for it, and she is a right-wing politician. Today in Germany, colonialism has become a subject for debate between historians, and not between politicians. But as long as politicians pass laws like the French law on colonialism in 2005, requiring teachers to discuss colonisation in a positive way, there will be no progress.

That means that the "colonial fracture" you discuss in a book from 2005 is now more relevant than ever?
Emmanuel Macron is the first politician to cross the unspoken divide between the right and the left. Don’t forget that in his first sentence about crimes against humanity, he also mentioned the need to look at the past in a peaceful way. We are not responsible for what our ancestors have done. If we continue to ignore stories on this issue, some extremists, whether jihadist radicals, friends of Dieudonné or the Soral, will continue to manipulate history, and the kids in the suburbs will continue to think of France as a humiliating colonial power. It is time to reflect together on this issue, so that we can finally open a museum. Until this period in French history is acknowledged with a museum, it will continue to spark controversy.

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