Who will win in France’s memory wars?
A few weeks before the 2017 French elections, far-right leader Marine Le Pen upset the presidential campaign. In an interview, Le Pen remarked: “I don’t think France is responsible for the Vél d’Hiv”, referring to the round-up of 13,000 Jews, many of whom later perished in the Nazi death camps. , by the French police in Paris in July 1942. “If anyone was responsible, it was those who were in power at the time, but it was not France,” she continues.
In a way, Le Pen’s words were shocking. They have defied more than two decades of state policy, which recognizes France’s complicity in the Holocaust since 1995, when President Jacques Chirac apologized for his country’s role in the extermination of European Jews. From yet another perspective, Le Pen was only following a narrative established not by the far right, to which it belongs, but by its winner: the leader of the Free French, Charles de Gaulle.
The argument that the wartime Vichy authorities were not all of France was forged by the Gaullist authorities towards the end of World War II. It took decades for this view to be officially rejected, and its prevalence in some political circles – even today – illustrates that this rejection has not been fully accepted.
Meanwhile, activists have long fought for justice for France’s colonial past. President Emmanuel Macron has taken modest steps to address part of his country’s history, in particular France’s legacy in Algeria, which she ruled for 130 years, and its role in the Rwandan genocide of 1994 He hinted that he considered his task to be comparable to that of Chirac. But can Macron really count with the history of France in the way Chirac approached his country’s complicity in the Shoah?
Like other European countries, France has long struggled with the politics of memory. In the immediate post-war period, the de Gaulle government fabricated the myth of a resistant France, according to which the Resistance, rather than being led by a small number of courageous and committed people, represented the essentialized spirit of the France. The resistance myth, a concept invented by French historian Henry Rousso, opposed the Vichy regime made up of usurpers and impostors.
It has taken decades for historians such as Rousso and American political scientist Robert Paxton to tackle this point of view with previously unexamined archival material. The high-profile trials of former collaborationist officials who served the post-war authorities, such as Maurice Papon, also helped debunk the myth that Vichy did not represent the “real” France. All of this was built towards Chirac’s 1995 speech, which defined his political legacy.
Macron’s decision to address French Algeria will force him to face a much more lasting legacy. Algeria was conquered by French forces in 1830, beginning a period of colonial rule that lasted until 1962. Unlike other French colonies, Algeria was administered as part of France. The slogan “the Seine divides Paris; the Mediterranean divides France ”summed up the official point of view. Hundreds of thousands of Europeans black feet the settlers settled in the colony, where they enjoyed many more rights than the indigenous Arabs and Muslims. More than a century of growing tensions culminated in the Algerian War of 1954-62, which then led to the independence of Algeria.
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The Algerian war traumatized France “like a family secret”, as the Algerian-born historian Benjamin Stora once said. About a million black feet left Algeria for France after independence in 1962 and, with the harkis (pro-French Muslims), felt betrayed by the French government. The pro-French Algerian military sections – which attempted a putsch against De Gaulle’s government in 1961 – also felt bitterly what they saw as the abandonment of an integral part of France.
But the hundreds of thousands of Algerian Muslims who visited France before and after independence had radically different views on history. They remembered racialized oppression, colonial massacres, and a brutal war of independence that involved the widespread use of torture by French forces.
It will be difficult to reconcile the two sides in an official narrative, and Macron has said he recognizes the importance of the task at hand. “I am lucid about the memorial tasks that await me, which also have a political dimension. The Algerian war is the most important of them, ”he declared.
Macron got a taste of how historical debates can ignite minds when he called colonialism a “crime against humanity” in the 2017 presidential election, drawing fierce condemnation from his rivals to his right. At the office, his language was more reserved. Nonetheless, he chose to address two of the most painful episodes in recent French history: the Algerian war and France’s alleged support for genocidal authorities during the Rwandan genocide.
To this end, Macron commissioned two historical reports: one, chaired by Benjamin Stora, examining how France should relate to the colonization of Algeria and its war of independence, and the second, led by the historian Vincent Duclert, probing the conduct of France during the Rwandan genocide.
Stora’s report, presented in January, made a series of modest recommendations, such as the return to Algeria of the sword of Emir Abdelkader, the 19th century Algerian leader of the anti-French resistance, and the erection memorials in four places in France where Algerians were interned during the war.
Duclert’s most striking conclusions, delivered in March, concluded that France bore “an overwhelming responsibility” for inaction during the Rwandan genocide and that its policies were motivated by colonial era stereotypes and the desire to maintain its sphere of influence in French-speaking Africa. However, he absolved the socialist government of François Mitterrand of its direct complicity in the massacres of Tutsis.
Macron has already made progress in implementing the recommendations of the Duclert report. On May 27, during a visit to Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, he delivered a founding 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 of recognizing the share of suffering it has inflicted on the Rwandan people”, he declared, without however officially apologizing. The speech was hailed by the Rwandan government, which has long called on France to apologize for allegedly aiding the genocidal authorities.
“What Macron did was courageous, and we appreciate that he did it,” Daniel Ngamije, the Rwandan Minister of Health, told me.
Historians warn that the official memory policy is not the same as the academic study of history, although one can help guide the other. “Macron is not at all an intellectual, he is a politician”, quipped historian Marc Olivier Baruch during our intervention, adding: “If Oscar Wilde has been accused of posing as a sodomite, Macron pretends to be an intellectual.
Even if Macron poses as an intellectual, he seems to be leading a real effort to reassess his country’s past, which he considers to be one of the founding episodes of the current Fifth Republic, established in 1958 during the Algerian war. “In the best tradition of the beginning of the Fifth Republic, we did not speak but rather suppressed… There was no effort to work on a political memorial effort”, he declared. “This explains part of the divisions in our country today: social, socio-economic, political.
In September, Macron held a ceremony to honor the memory of the harkis, of which he said France had “neglected its duty to”. He called for a “new stage” in official policy towards Algerians who fought for France and their descendants.
Two important dates are approaching, which could be the occasion for Macron to make a statement on the colonization of Algeria. Any speech – if it is ambitious enough – can eventually be considered as important as the apology of Chirac in 1995. “Presidents do not invent these conflicts on history, but they are key players in the debate, well. that far from being the only ones, ”Johann Michel, historian told me.
First, October 17, 2021 will mark the 60th anniversary of the massacre of Algerians in Paris in 1961, in which 40 protesters, according to the official count, were killed in a police crackdown. Then, on March 18, 2022, it will be 60 years since the Evian accords were signed between the De Gaulle government and the Algerian government in exile, paving the way for Algerian independence later in the year.
With the presidential election set to be held a month later, in April 2022, a statement on one or both dates could bolster support from some left-wing voters, increasingly angry with what they see as the right turn of the chair. on identity and economy. “It is a relatively free option for him to appeal to the left wing of his coalition, which is starting to be disappointed with him,” Baruch said.
Of course, any statement would likely involve a heavy dose of Macron. the same time (“At the same time”) cover, as was the case in his Rwandan speech in which he took up his responsibilities, without apologizing.
Any declaration would have repercussions at home and abroad. Macron’s speech in Rwanda was seen by some observers, such as journalist Pauline Le Troquier, as a necessary but cynical way to help the two countries forge closer economic ties. France, which seeks to recruit Algiers as an ally to help manage crises in Africa – particularly in the Sahel and Libya – may find it easier if it works to appease the painful memory of colonial rule. Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune however warned that he would not “favor good relations with France to the detriment of history and memory”.
“The politics of remembrance with regard to Rwanda and Algeria is particularly directly related to the current geopolitical situation,” Baruch said. If successful, Macron’s reassessment of the past will echo in the future.
[see also: Why France has opened its archives on the Rwandan genocide]