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21 September 2021updated 22 Sep 2021 11:28am

Who will prevail in France’s memory wars?

Emmanuel Macron is confronting France’s colonial past in Algeria and its role in the Rwandan genocide – and reopening old wounds.

By Ido Vock

A few weeks before the 2017 French election, the far-right leader Marine Le Pen upended the presidential campaign. In an interview, Le Pen remarked: “I don’t think that France is responsible for the Vél d’Hiv”, in reference to the round-up of 13,000 Jews, many of whom later perished in Nazi death camps, by French police in Paris in July 1942. “If someone was responsible, it was those who were in power at the time, but they were not France,” she continued.

In one sense, Le Pen’s remarks were shocking. They defied more than two decades of state policy, which has recognised French complicity in the Holocaust since 1995, when president Jacques Chirac apologised for his country’s role in the extermination of European Jews. Yet from another perspective, Le Pen was doing no more than following a narrative established not by the far right, to which she belongs, but by its vanquisher: the leader of the Free French, Charles de Gaulle. 

The argument that the wartime Vichy authorities were not all of France was crafted by the Gaullist authorities towards the end of the Second World War. It took decades for that view to be officially rejected and its prevalence within some political circles – even today – illustrates that this rejection has not been fully accepted. 

Meanwhile, activists have for a long time fought for a reckoning with France’s colonial past. President Emmanuel Macron has made modest steps towards addressing some of his country’s history, particularly France’s legacy in Algeria, which it ruled for 130 years, and its role in the 1994 Rwandan genocide. He has hinted that he views his task as comparable to that of Chirac. But can Macron really reckon with France’s history in the way Chirac addressed his country’s complicity in the Holocaust?

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In common with other European countries, France has long struggled with the politics of memory. In the immediate postwar period, De Gaulle’s government fabricated a myth of a resistant France, according to which the Resistance, rather than being driven by a small number of courageous and committed people, represented the essentialised spirit of France. The mythe résistencialiste, a concept coined by the French historian Henry Rousso, stood in opposition to the Vichy regime composed of usurpers and impostors. 

It took decades for historians such as Rousso and the American political scientist Robert Paxton to hack away at that view with previously unstudied archival material. High-profile trials of former collaborationist civil servants who had gone on to serve the postwar authorities, such as Maurice Papon, also helped debunk the myth that Vichy did not represent the “real” France. All of which built towards Chirac’s 1995 speech, which defined his political legacy. 

Macron’s decision to address French Algeria will force him to confront a much longer-lasting legacy. Algeria was conquered by French forces in 1830, beginning a period of colonial rule which lasted until 1962. Unlike France’s other colonies, Algeria was administered as part of France. The slogan “the Seine divides Paris; the Mediterranean divides France” summed up the official view. Hundreds of thousands of European pied-noir settlers moved to the colony, where they enjoyed many more rights than the Arab and Muslim natives. More than a century of building tensions culminated in the Algerian War of 1954-62, subsequently leading to Algerian independence. 

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[see also: How the Second World War was won]

The Algerian War traumatised France “like a family secret”, as the Algerian-born historian Benjamin Stora once put it. Around one million pied-noirs left Algeria for France after independence in 1962 and, together with the harkis (pro-French Muslims), felt betrayed by the French government. The pro-French Algeria sections of the military – who attempted a putsch against De Gaulle’s government in 1961 – also bitterly resented what they saw as the abandonment of an integral part of France. 

But the hundreds of thousands of Algerian Muslims who made their way to France before and after independence had radically different views of history. They remembered racialised oppression, colonial massacres and a brutal war of independence which involved the widespread use of torture by French forces. 

It will be difficult to reconcile both sides in any official narrative, and Macron has said he recognises the momentousness of the task confronting him. “I am lucid regarding the memorial tasks facing me, which also have a political dimension. The Algerian War is the most significant of them,” he said.

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Macron had an early taste of how historical debates can inflame spirits when he characterised colonialism as “a crime against humanity” during the 2017 presidential election, prompting fierce condemnation from rivals to his right. In office, his language has been more guarded. Nonetheless, he has chosen to address two of the most painful episodes in recent French history: the Algerian War and France’s alleged support for genocidaire authorities during the Rwandan genocide. 

To this end, Macron has commissioned two landmark reports: one, chaired by Benjamin Stora, examining how France should relate to the colonisation of Algeria and its war of independence, and the second, led by the historian Vincent Duclert, probing France’s conduct during the Rwandan genocide.

Stora’s report, presented in January, made a series of modest recommendations, such as restoring to Algeria the sword of Emir Abdelkader, the 19th-century Algerian leader of the anti-French resistance and erecting memorials in four locations in France where Algerians were interned during the war. 

Duclert’s starker findings, delivered in March, concluded that France bore “overwhelming responsibilities” for inaction during the Rwandan genocide and that its policy was driven by colonial-era stereotypes and a desire to maintain its sphere of influence in French-speaking Africa. It did, however, absolve François Mitterrand’s socialist government of direct complicity in the mass killings of Tutsis.  

Macron has already made progress towards fulfilling the recommendations of the Duclert report. On 27 May, while on a visit to Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, he made a seminal speech in which he accepted responsibility for France’s role during the genocide. “France has a responsibility: that of facing up to its history and to recognise the share of suffering that it inflicted on the Rwandan people,” he said, though he stopped short of offering an official apology. The speech was welcomed by the Rwandan government, which has long called for France to apologise for allegedly aiding the génocidaire authorities. 

“What Macron did was courageous, and we appreciate that he did it,” Daniel Ngamije, Rwanda’s health minister, told me.

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Historians caution that official memory politics are not the same as the academic study of history, though one can help guide the other. “Macron is not an intellectual in the slightest – he is a politician,” the historian Marc Olivier Baruch quipped when we spoke, adding: “If Oscar Wilde was accused of posing as a sodomite, Macron poses as an intellectual.” 

Even if Macron poses as an intellectual, he appears to be leading a genuine effort to re-evaluate his country’s past, which he considers one of the foundational episodes of the current Fifth Republic, established in 1958 during the Algerian War. “In the best tradition of the early Fifth Republic, we didn’t speak but rather we suppressed… There was no effort to work on a political memorial effort,” he has said. “This explains part of our country’s divisions today: social, socio-economic, political.” 

In September, Macron held a ceremony to honour the memory of the harkis, whom he said France had “neglected its duties towards”. He has called for a “new step” in official policy towards Algerians who fought for France and their descendants.

Two important dates are approaching, which could provide an opportunity for Macron to make a declaration on the colonisation of Algeria. Any speech – if it is ambitious enough – may in time be viewed as being as momentous as Chirac’s 1995 apology. “Presidents do not invent these conflicts over history, but they are key actors in the debate, though far from the only ones,” Johann Michel, a historian, told me.

Firstly, 17 October 2021 will mark the 60th anniversary of the 1961 massacre of Algerians in Paris, in which 40 protesters, according to the official count, were killed in a police crackdown. Then, on 18 March 2022, it will be 60 years since the Évian Accords were signed between the De Gaulle government and the Algerian government-in-exile, paving the way for Algerian independence later that year. 

With the presidential election due to be held a month later in April 2022, a declaration on one or both of those dates could shore up support from some left-wing voters, who are increasingly angry about what they see as the president’s turn to the right on identity and the economy. “It’s a relatively cost-free option for him to appeal to the left flank of his coalition, which is becoming disillusioned with him,” Baruch said. 

Of course, any declaration would likely involve a large dose of Macron’s en même temps (“at the same time”) hedging, as was the case in his Rwanda speech in which he took responsibility, without apologising. 

Any statement would have repercussions at home and abroad. Macron’s Rwanda speech was viewed by some observers, such as the journalist Pauline Le Troquier, as a necessary but cynical way to help the two countries forge closer economic relations. France, which is seeking to recruit Algiers as an ally to help manage crises in Africa – in particular in the Sahel and Libya – might find this easier if it makes efforts to assuage the painful memory of colonial rule. The Algerian president Abdelmadjid Tebboune has, however, warned that he will not “privilege good relations with France at the expense of history and memory”. 

“The politics of memory with regards to Rwanda and Algeria especially has direct relevance to the current geopolitical situation,” Baruch said. If it is successful, Macron’s re-evaluation of the past will have echoes long into the future. 

[see also: Why France has opened its archives on the Rwandan genocide]

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