Behind the recent flare-up of tensions between France and Algeria exists a troubled past, in which causes for such tension have been lurking for decades, just awaiting some trigger such as an awkward diplomatic twist or an inappropriate political comment. One such twist came on 29 September, when Paris halved the number of visas it allocates to Algerian citizens, prompting an angry response from Algiers, which summoned the French ambassador in Algiers to protest the measure. Days later, Algeria closed its airspace to French military flights on trips to the African Sahel region, where French troops operate. Paris justified its act by saying Algeria refuses to take back its citizens who entered France illegally.
The fact of the matter is simple: France colonised Algeria for over 132 years, during which time its army, secret services and stooges committed horrendous atrocities against Algeria, its people and even the environment. In 1960, for example, France conducted its first nuclear tests in the Algerian desert and, till today, Paris refuses to share with its former colony the maps detailing test sites. France continues to refuse to apologize to Algeria or to compensate victims of nuclear pollution.
One of the big ironies here is that traces of nuclear contaminated dust were found in France's Jura area, close to the French-Swiss borders. According to French non-governmental radiation monitors, the dust arrived in France thanks to strong winds in Algeria and West Africa.
Despite everything, decades after Algerian independence, France has still not come to terms with its shameful history in Algeria and other former colonies in the rest of Africa.
Presidential hopeful, Emmanuel Macron, when campaigning for the presidency in 2017, visited Algeria where he described his country's colonization of Algeria as a "crime against humanity". On 20 January this year, president Macron said there will be "neither repentance nor apologies" for Algeria.
The same president, though, found it easy to apologize to Algerians who fought for France against their country in the 1960s Algerian war of independence. France betrayed them and left them behind to fend for themselves. Those "Harkis", as they are known, who managed to flee to France found themselves living in inhumane conditions in concentration camps, lacking almost any rights. Even today, they are treated as second class citizens in the country they have fought for.
Every election season in France, the colonial past—particularly in Algeria—comes up, one way or another. French political parties always touch on the issue as they try to rally voters. President Macron is facing elections next April and he knows that Harkis usually vote for the far right nationalists led by Marine Le Pen, who is expected to run against him next year. Harkis could tip the balance of local governments, especially in the southern region where they are concentrated.
The French colonisation of Algeria for such a long time has left deep scars on both countries, and keeps propelling prejudices and discrimination across French society, fuelling hatred and deepening other social ills. Right wing political parties, such as Marine Le Pen's nationalist National Rally, try to capitalize on anti-immigration feelings, further intoxicating national politics.
The deepening French Islamophobia crisis, for example, is well connected to the country's colonial past, especially in Algeria. French citizens of Algerian descent make up a large segment of the French population and most of these people are Muslims, as were their ancestors who fought colonial France to defend, not only their homeland, but their religion, too. In addition to other immigrants, mostly from former African French colonies like Mali and Senegal, they make the largest Muslim community in Western Europe. It is estimated that French Muslims, mostly of immigrant descent, make up about ten per cent of French who are younger than 25 years old. Furthermore, the overall Muslim community in France is thought to be between 3 and 4 million and Muslims make up between 10 per cent to 20 per cent of the inhabitants of Paris and its suburbs.
This makes Muslims an important voting bloc, particularly in the southern French regions and Paris suburbs, where local elections are more important than national polls. However, it also makes Muslims the subject of political polarisation and targets of racisms and discrimination, even in governmental departments.
Nicolas Sarkozy, the former French president, is famously remembered for describing the rioting 2005 youth as "scum" while serving as minister of interior under former president, Jacques Chirac. At the time, Mr. Sarkozy was preparing to run for president and such rhetoric against immigrants, mostly Muslims, could win him some right wing votes. In 2007, Sarkozy won the presidency but nothing changed for the poor suburbs in terms of social mobility and poverty alleviation.
After the terror attacks in Paris in 2015 in which hundreds were killed and injured, the debate about Islam, Islmaphobia, secularism and racism in France raged on, but mostly in the absence of Muslims themselves.
It is an equally valid argument that French foreign policy towards Muslim countries still imitates the hegemonic colonial days, particularly in West Africa and the Sahel region, further feeding the domestic Islamic-bogeyman created for domestic political purposes. For example, France is winding down its military operations in the Sahel region because of public pressure, particularly in Mali, where resentment of French military presence runs deep and wide.
In 2011, France spearheaded the Western military intervention in Libya and that military invasion is the main reason behind the rise of smuggling of arms, terror attacks and separatism in the African Sahel itself. Essentially, France's foreign policy continues to be shaped along colonial thinking, decades after all French colonies became free nations.
Now, and in the future, there will always be some twists and turns to trigger troubles in the French-Algerian ties, because they are symptoms of historical injustices France still refuses to correct. Having the courage to ask for forgiveness from the Harkis might be a good thing. What is much better is for president Macron to apologize to Algeria as the first step to come to terms with its terrible colonial past.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.