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The Politics of Apology: Hollande and Algeria

When newly elected French President François 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 (1954–1962) 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.

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The script changed a few months into the presidency of François 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. The large community of young people of Algerian and “colonial” heritage in France may not receive jobs from Hollande, but his speech bolstered their self-esteem and gave pride through righteous victimhood.

Hollande’s speech was well received in Algiers. Abdelaziz Bouteflika, the Algerian president, is an ailing autocrat whose succession is uncertain at a time when one Arab dictatorship after another is falling into the hands of Islamists. By the early 1990s, after years of single-party rule, those who had led the struggle for Algerian independence had lost popular support to an Islamist opposition. The army, led by those who had once fought for independence, had responded with unrestrained brutality, and one hundred thousand people had died during a few tumultuous years of conflict with the Islamists. Bouteflika, a middling bureaucrat known for corruption, was put in power as that conflict was ended by the security state. Some hoped he would democratize and develop Algeria, but instead he perpetuated what had become a deadening status quo. When the Arab Spring stirred the region in 2011, Algeria had been under a draconian state of emergency for nineteen years and under Bouteflika’s presidency for twelve. History stayed suspended, inhibited by the bloodbaths of the 1990s.

But Algeria has remained tense during the ambiguous blossoming of the Arab Spring. Islamists lurk at the edges of the nation’s politics, waiting for an opening. Not surprisingly, Algiers’ calls for France to apologize for colonialism had grown stronger as the domestic legitimacy of the regime shrank. It was already more than forty years since the liquidation of Algérie Française when Franco-Algerian relations stumbled over the issue, during the presidency of Nicolas Sarkozy, Hollande’s predecessor. In an act of reconciliation, Sarkozy paid up the pensions to Algerian veterans who fought for the French army. Bouteflika and others of his nation’s old guard wanted more; they wanted to resuscitate, if only for a day, the glory of their war of independence, and to take a page from the Islamists’ “victimized nativism” handbook. Hollande indulged them with his mea culpa in Algiers. Bouteflika knew not to push his luck: there are no demands for reparations. However, Hollande brought another gift: during the same visit, it was announced that Renault, the French car maker, would build a factory in Algiers, a one-billion-euro investment in a joint venture with the Algerian government. At a time when France’s automobile industry is shedding jobs and market shares, and when trade unions are screaming bloody murder about outsourcing, this initiative had domestic consequences for Hollande.

The North African darling for French industrialists has actually been Morocco—Renault is building a much larger factory there. Algeria is a bigger market, and Tunisians are more skilled, but seventy percent of French investments in North Africa go to the small kingdom on the Atlantic. The Moroccan workforce may be less educated, but it is more reliable. The Moroccan monarch, who claims religious credentials as “commander of the faithful,” is reasonably liked by his people and knows how to keep Islamists and socialists in check. Rabat, Paris, and Algiers must be watching with dread and a pang of satisfaction as Tunisia, the North African country closest to an economic takeoff, now run by a democratically elected Islamist government, descends into hell because of endemic social strife. Both Hollande and Bouteflika are men of the left, and in times of an ascending Muslim Brotherhood, they see an anticolonial diatribe as a way of anchoring themselves against the political headwinds Islamism has generated.

Hollande’s Algiers moment should also be read in the context of France’s Arab policy. Nicolas Sarkozy had Roman dreams of associating the economies of the European Union with those of North Africa and the Levant. When those plans were shelved because of the Arab Spring and the accession of Islamists to power in Egypt and Tunisia, France worked hard to remain relevant during the political transition. It led the NATO mission to overthrow Muammar Qaddafi, evacuated its combat troops from Afghanistan ahead of schedule, and went furthest of all Western powers in supporting Syrian rebels. France also aligned its interests with those of wealthy Qatar, the godmother of the Syrian rebellion, and by far the Arab country with the most ambitious foreign policy. Not coincidentally, Qatar started to make large investments in France.

Mere days after the December anticolonial shocker in Algiers, Hollande authorized a signature neocolonial mission: the military rescue of an embattled African regime. Jihadists, fleeing Algeria in the late 1990s, had been roaming unimpeded among Muslim populations in sub-Saharan Africa, living off ransoms for abducted Western expatriate workers, seeding their ideology among the locals. When in January of this year a radical Malian offshoot looked poised to take the capital, Bamako, Hollande ordered them stopped with air and ground attacks, a decision that showed continuity with, rather than rupture from, his predecessors.

Champion of rebellion here, backer of the status quo there, France has turned the page of colonialism but not of interference. Paris is not just protecting Mali but the vital Algerian gas industry across the long Saharan border—Algiers, obligingly, opened its airspace to French fighter jets. The risk is real: hours after French military operations started, a jihadist commando took hundreds hostage in an Algerian gas facility. The huge task now before Hollande is to mop up the mess in the Sahara created by the 1990s Algerian civil war as well as the recent revolution in Libya. And he has to do so without being stigmatized as imperialist, because the erring of French foreign policy in the Muslim world can come home to roost.

In March 2012, Mohamed Merah, a radicalized twenty-two-year-old gunman, claimed nine victims in the south of France. A Frenchman of Algerian descent, Merah had embraced the jihadist creed and received weapon training the previous summer in Waziristan. Several thousand people are on the French government’s domestic terrorist watch list, many of them women and teenagers glued to their computer screens. French with roots in Muslim Algeria, Senegal, Mali, Niger, and elsewhere will read the foreign policy of their home country through the prism of whatever lingering identification they feel for their country and religion of origin, and of their exposure to jihadist Internet propaganda. To legitimize the operation in Mali, Hollande sought a UN mandate, enrolled African nations to contribute boots on the ground, and got the blessing of his allies in Arabia. With no certainty that this would be enough to counter a Web filled with condemnations of French imperialism, France was placed on high alert for terrorist threat.

Postcolonial victimization fuels the hostility of the jihadist current, and if for that reason alone, it is essential for Western capitals to extricate themselves from that legacy. Hollande’s Algiers apology, however, resembles Obama’s June 2009 “A New Beginning” speech in Cairo: a one-off statement competing against a narrative barrage about the evil of the West and its hegemonic ambitions. It is not clear that, aside from their value as theater, Hollande’s regrets will have measurable effect, one way or the other. Barack Obama’s “apology tour” didn’t make the US more loved or less feared in the Middle East. China’s bickering with Japan for not owning up to World War II atrocities is far less a cause of growing tension between the two nations than practical territorial disputes. Time passes, and the crimes of French colonialism do not reflect on contemporary French society any more than they excuse the shortcomings of the current Algerian government. History takes place in the there and then, and when that context has vanished into time, it is left to scholars to exhume the human reality from the mass graves of human affairs. When it comes to an issue as complicated as “Algérie Française,” opportunistic politicians should stand back.

Camille Pecastaing is a senior associate professor and the acting director of Middle East Studies at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies.

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