The Politics of Apology: Hollande and Algeria

By Pecastaing, Camille | World Affairs, March-April 2013 | Go to article overview

The Politics of Apology: Hollande and Algeria


Pecastaing, Camille, World Affairs


When newly elected French President Francois Hollande squarely denounced the brutality and injustice of the whole era of French colonialism before the Algerian Parliament on December 20, 2012, he created headlines on both shores of the Mediterranean. Some found in Hollande's words vindication for the evil of European imperialism, while others saw an indiscriminate betrayal of French and Western civilizing values. That was the result Hollande intended. The polarization he created bolstered both the French and Algerian governments in trying times.

The history of the two countries has always been inflammatory. Paris forced itself on Algiers in 1830 with a quasi-genocide and left it in 1962 amid a shocking outburst of torture, terrorism, and ethnic cleansing that outdid the occasional massacres and unending discrimination of the long years of colonial occupation. France and Algeria went their own ways but never quite consummated the divorce. Algeria was not a colony but a province of France and motherland for more than a million pieds-noirs (i.e., non-Muslims with Algerian roots and French citizenship). The autocratic government that took over in Algiers squandered opportunities to develop the now independent country, leaving citizens to contemplate the long decay of French-era infrastructure and to dream about what life would be like in France. Droves of "Algerian" (i.e., Muslim) laborers followed the pieds-noirs in their exile across the mare nostrum, creating an immigrant community that, several generations later, amounts today to as many as two million people settled in France.

Algerians are as integral a part of France's social reality as the idea of France is to the Algerian imagination. The Franco-Algerian relationship, filled with acrimony and longing, is too intimate and complicated to yield to an easy repair. The long and brutal war of independence (1954-1965) was a terrible civil conflict, with cruelty and bitterness on both sides, leaving no appetite for prolonged introspection. The generation of Algerians that had won independence never questioned the excesses of violence they had employed, and until now it never occurred to French officials to express even token regrets for the principle of colonialism. Studiously oblivious toward the past, both governments have traded with each other and argued elliptically over issues such as the terms of nationalization of oil production and the treatment of Algerian immigrants in France. In recent decades, Paris and Algiers have found common cause against Islamists, working together to contain the threat they pose to both governments.

The script changed a few months into the presidency of Francois Hollande, who surprised observers used to the conspiracy of silence practiced by both countries with a public speech marking the anniversary of a massacre of peaceful Algerian protesters in Paris on October 17, 1961. That summer, the Algerian independence movement had brought war to the French capital with a bombing campaign, and the police had brutally enforced a curfew on Algerians, building up to the October massacre. Hollande was the first high-ranking official to own up to the tragedy, unnerving the French right. Two months later, he doubled down with his apologetic speech to the Algerian Parliament. It was a transformative moment for the French republic; it was also an opportunistic political maneuver.

Back in the 1950s, the French left, Hollande's ideological cradle, was defined by its fierce opposition to imperialism. But since then the issue of colonialism has dimmed, becoming a historical curiosity for most Frenchmen, especially the large numbers born after 1962. But with his anti-colonial statement calling up this prior age, Hollande was seeking to anchor his presidency in a solid leftist tradition. Unable to carry out the redistributive measures promised in his campaign, he wanted to use the speech to reorient the nation's focus. All the better that the right censures him as unpatriotic. …

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