France’s president Emmanuel Macron is fond of grandiose language. After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, he declared Europe had entered a new era. After he became president, he declared a new era in Franco-African relations with the country’s former colonies. And in Algeria last week, he declared another new era, one with an “irreversible dynamic of progress” in relations between the two countries.
The trouble with a new era is it requires the conclusion of the previous one. And when it comes to Algeria, France has still not fully reckoned with the ghosts of its empire.
Sixty years after Algeria wrested independence from Paris, a true accounting of what happened has yet to be agreed. While in the city of Oran, Macron didn’t even try, refusing to offer an official apology for historical crimes, and saying instead that he wanted “truth and recognition.” But whose truth? Far from opening a new era, Macron is only offering multiple versions of what happened during the previous one.
Macron is the first French president born after the independence of Algeria, and as such the traumatic events have less hold over him. He does, however, have to contend with the political ramifications of what he says and does.
For the French, Algeria still retains an outsize influence in the political imagination, equivalent perhaps to the place of India and Pakistan in the UK or Ireland in the US. The war of independence was brutal and cost hundreds of thousands of lives by the time it ended in 1962. France was unwilling to let Algeria become independent, seeing the country as part of France – which, legally, it was, as much part of the country as Lyon or Bordeaux.
The independence of Algeria brought seismic repercussions, the consequences of which endure to this day. Most obvious was immigration, as Algerians and their descendants have made a home in France. But most controversial were the pieds-noirs, the French and European settlers who had lived in Algeria. By the time of the outbreak of the war in 1954, there were more than a million of them, over 10 percent of Algeria’s population, and after independence they returned home.
But the France they returned to didn’t want them, seeing in them either the beneficiaries of a now-crumbling colonial empire or unwanted refugees. For decades, their resentment has simmered and become part of the body politic. This is the background to Macron’s careful balancing act. The pieds-noirs form a political constituency unknown in most of the West – a group of people who benefited from colonialism and who still, decades later, vocally maintain they were victims.
The defeat of France in Algeria remains a live political memory. Nostalgia for that period has animated many voters on the far-right. At the start of this year, in the run-up to the French election, Macron tried to court their votes by acknowledging their suffering, in the process irritating French-Algerians.
But this is the problem with Macron’s approach. It assumes multiple truths are possible about that period and that delivering palatable messages piecemeal to these groups will somehow draw a line under the history.
To the pieds-noirs, he acknowledges their suffering; to French-Algerians, he apologizes for police brutality; to Algerians last week, he speaks of reconciliation and hopes to turn the page. That sort of messaging is only plausible for a short period. What is missing is an honest reckoning with historic crimes, something that is currently too politically toxic to handle.
Indeed, it may be impossible to reconcile these multiple histories.
In other countries that have reckoned with the long shadow of colonialism, the public conversation is usually about how to deal with the legacy, not whether that legacy is indeed a negative one. Those public conversations – in Britain, in Belgium and elsewhere – also overlap with a wider conversation, driven by the experiences of African-Americans, about the legacy of slavery.
In France, meanwhile, decades of political tussles have not resulted in a narrative that all groups can at least live with. The Algerian and Muslim population in France, the pieds-noirs, and those in Algeria itself have very divergent views of the war of independence. Macron is hoping his delicate political dance will put the issue to rest, so a new relationship with Algeria can begin.
The trouble is that Algeria may not wait. Like many former French colonies and protectorates, it has been steadily moving away from France’s orbit.
Earlier this summer, the Algerian president announced English would be taught in primary schools from this autumn. The teaching of English, rather than French, to children is hugely controversial, with a similar attempt 30 years ago dropped after an outcry.
But times are very different now, and English is both the lingua franca of global business, as well as the language of instruction at Algerian universities for medicine and engineering.
That is what makes France’s tussles with its history and Macron’s piecemeal approach so difficult. By the time the long, slow reckoning arrives and a French leader is finally able to apologize, there may not be many in Algeria willing to listen.
Faisal Al Yafai is currently writing a book on the Middle East and is a frequent commentator on international TV news networks. He has worked for news outlets such as The Guardian and the BBC, and reported on the Middle East, Eastern