Last week President Francois Hollande finally acknowledged France’s abandonment of Algerians who fought alongside French colonial forces in the Algerian war of independence. His words were welcomed by the surviving “Harkis” who have been waiting more than half a century to hear them; for others, though, this comes as little more than rehearsed lip-service from another disingenuous politician pandering for the Algerian vote as France’s election season swings into sight. Stood at the spot where France traditionally honours its war-time heroes, Hollande’s words remain empty vessels of reluctant recognition of a country and people used as pawns in a bigger game.
One of France’s darkest chapters of history is unsurprisingly its occupation of Algeria, and yet its continued reluctance to offer official apologies let alone recognition is a stark reminder of the power it holds over its ex-colonies and their subservience in official eyes.
The Harki contingent had hundreds of thousands of Algerians who fought under the French flag yet only 60,000 were permitted to settle in France in squalid conditions after French forces withdrew from Algeria in 1962. The remaining Harkis were forced to remain in Algeria where they were turned against by their countrymen for being traitors; many were targeted and killed.
This abandonment is one of the grave injustices that they underwent for fighting for a country that they believed would entail the survival of their families in extreme poverty; their safety net from the violence of war. Paying with their blood for their “love of the French flag” was of course the romantic French explanation for what was essentially a death sentence for a people who served a limited purpose.
This rhetoric did not die with the Harkis and has since recycled itself with the times when the need arises for France to make use of its immigrant population. Four years ago, Nicolas Sarkozy became the first president in France’s history to visit the camp in Rivesaltes where tens of thousands of Harkis were incarcerated after the war. A few days later Hollande, as the Socialist candidate, incorporated the Harkis in his manifesto by promising official recognition of their contribution and France’s culpability. Of course, both moves by Sarkozy and Hollande came before the first round of the presidential election, and so, with seven months to go for the elections this time round, it comes as no surprise that Hollande, seeking a second term in office, would commit to a timely promise for the same personal gain.
This also cements Algeria’s standing in this complex-bilateral relationship and defines the lines that cannot be crossed and the words that cannot be said. In 2005, in commemorating the French massacres in the Algerian cities of Setif and Guelma, Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika compared the French burning of thousands of Algerian bodies after the massacres with that of “the ovens of the Nazis”. The French were in uproar and, true to form, conveniently summoned the history of the Harkis in Algeria, where 150,000 were allegedly killed in revenge by the National Liberation front (FLN) in 1962, to be used only as a counter-argument for the defence of the republic.
For Algerians, their glory lies in the old pages of the history books which detail the struggles of life during 132 years of French colonialisation and the heroism of its martyrs fighting seven gruelling years for the country’s independence. The atrocities of the French colonial legacy are no secret but what comes at a price is the recognition of these atrocities; many former colonies are still mumbling requests for apologies as though official recognition will suddenly dispel socio-political stagnation and decades of deprivation. It won’t, and waiting patiently for the higher power to admit responsibility is a humiliating acceptance of a carefully maintained authority; even then, the lesser deal of acknowledgment is accepted gleefully however long overdue it might be.
It was only in 1999, under then President Jacques Chirac, that France officially admitted that Algeria’s fight for independence was actually a war and not just “events in Algeria”. Subsequently, in 2002 Chirac inaugurated a memorial near the Eiffel Tower to those who died fighting for France, including the Harkis. Finally, in 2012 the Harkis were noticed and only a week ago did France admit some semblance of responsibility. That is where the long list of demands comes to an abrupt end. France has not officially apologised for the Paris Massacre in 1961 where police officers beat Algerian protesters and dumped them into the River Seine, where their bodies were washed up on the banks. More importantly, Hollande’s symbolic gesture of decorating the Seine with roses in commemorating the victims in 2011 was done barely 12 hours after being named the Socialist nominee in the following year’s presidential elections. Of course, the pattern becomes uncomfortably apparent when you tie France’s acknowledgement of its immigrant citizens with that of its opportunistic needs.
Hollande is not the sole employer of such tactics. Sarkozy, who is currently attempting to win back the presidency he held from 2007 to 2012, has been criticised for pandering to the anti-immigrant vote whilst also reaching out a hand to France’s large immigrant population for using the slogan, “Once you become French, your ancestors are the Gauls”. In a nod to Ancient Gaul as a unifying symbol of French identity and the national unity slogan of the Third Republic, immigrants only become relevant when election season comes calling, before being confined to the arena of manipulation and scapegoating.
No sooner had his request for France to be more culturally Gaulois settled, than Sarkozy was making headlines for his roundtable discussion with representatives of the Harki associations where he stated that Harkis, too, had Gauls for ancestors. “The Harkis drama is that of entire France… an indelible bloodstain remains on our flag,” he added later, a consolation prize that says, don’t worry, you too can be French but only when it suits us. Clearly the Harkis bloodstain on the flag is the necessary price you pay for your “love of the French flag” but only shines brighter, amongst the plethora of blood that stains the tricoleur when it becomes a necessary means to an end.
Of course Sarkozy’s remarks are historically incorrect, manipulated simply for the sake of a homogenous French identity when in fact Gaul refers to a Roman geographical construct of a place that brings diverse people together. Sarkozy’s use of the Third Republic’s slogan is also misplaced; it was used by to rally courage and strength in the French after defeat in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870, so this manipulation for his election campaign would make General de Gaulle proud.
What Sarkozy says comes as no surprise from the president who created the controversial National Identity and Immigration Ministry in 2007. However, this says a lot about the “colonial nostalgia” that permeates French political discourse although, arguably, its absence was never apparent.
Comments like that of ex-prime minister François Fillon that “colonisation was merely a sharing of culture” are notions of enmity that seek to separate the immigrants from the “white” French republic. It also serves as a lingering reminder to ex-colonies of France’s everlasting authority exercised through maintained dependence and manipulation. It seeks to remind these populations of France’s favour of liberation and enlightenment for which Algeria, amongst others, should forever be indebted to France.
The right’s infatuation with colonialism is not ironic. Many pieds-noirs (“black-feet”), former French colonists living in Algeria, settled in the south of France which also hosts large immigrant populations. A region that traditionally votes for the far-right and is characterised by a deep history of racist crimes is strategically important for politicians like Sarkozy. They attempt to attract the right-aligned voters while at the same time acknowledging feverishly the Algerians who are only conveniently French when France reluctantly admits it.
For France’s immigrant population these sentiments are painful reminders of the standing of their countrymen in the face of French perception. Algeria was officially considered to be a part of France, unlike other colonies, and so constitutionally Algerians had the opportunity to live in France freely. Of course, the reality was another dose of despair whereby the Algerian community faced brutal repression. As a result, Algerians in France were discouraged from adopting French nationality, as a rejection of any association with the nation that persecuted them.
This leads onto the wider discussion of the lack of assimilation of immigrant populations or the crises of national identity with which so many young French citizens of immigrant backgrounds grapple to come to terms. However, it also begs the wider question of why Algerians continue to expect recognition from a power that still views them and their country as an opportunist convenience. When Hollande made his first official visit to Algeria in 2012 he was met with lines of elated Algerians proudly waving the French flag as he told officials that France finally recognised the suffering it had inflicted on Algeria. For some Algerians this was a proud moment; clearly, enough time had passed for Algerians once again to hold a French flag and feel proud about it. For others, Hollande’s remarks were not the official apology that they expected, and seeing their countrymen humiliate themselves further by their subservient show reiterated exactly how far Algeria needs to go before it can truly function independently.
France’s and Algeria’s success in their bilateral relationship and quest for normalisation will continue to be met with challenges so long as Algerians fail to recognise their own worth and Paris continues to manipulate that worth for its own political gains. Algeria does not need to focus on French culpability as a mirror to view its own socio-political endeavours, and the sooner that steps are taken to free itself from the shackles of the past, the sooner that it can truly maintain its sovereignty.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.