Why Is It So Hard to Say ‘Sorry’ in French?

France has never apologized for its treatment of colonial Algeria. Why not now?


As Algeria kicks off festivities for the 50th anniversary of its independence from France this week, all eyes are on the former colonial power’s new president, François Hollande. Nine countries asked to join the party in Algiers — including the United States, which conveyed American gratitude to three-term President Abdelaziz Bouteflika for Algeria’s "key role" in global counterterrorism and regional security. The French government sent no representatives to the opening ceremony, held in Algiers on July 5, but said that Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius would travel there soon to advance a late-summer visit by Hollande, raising expectations that a turning point is near in the prickly post-colonial relationship.

Some anticipate that Hollande could become the first French president to apologize formally for more than a century of colonization and hundreds of thousands of war dead beteen 1830 to 1962. Officials in Algiers say a full and frank apology is long overdue. Should they expect normalization of Franco-Algerian relations from a leader who billed himself in the campaign as "président normal" — in stark contrast to his predecessor, the frenetic Nicolas Sarkozy?

Hollande is the first French president with an explicitly post-colonial mindset. He was 10 weeks old when Algeria’s National Liberation Front (FLN) took up arms against French occupation. His predecessor, Sarkozy, may be a year younger, but during his presidency he had no time for what he called "eternal repentance." And his party colleagues in parliament even passed a law praising colonialism’s "positive role."

Hollande, on the other hand, has long been on conciliatory and friendly terms with Algeria. As a student, he interned in the French embassy there in 1978, and he returned to Algiers as a guest of the ruling FLN while he was Socialist Party secretary in 2006, where he was granted a lengthy meeting with Bouteflika. Two weeks after declaring his presidential candidacy in December 2010, Hollande returned to meet with the father of Algerian independence, Ahmed Ben Bella.

During those visits, Hollande forcefully condemned French colonialism as "an inequitable and oppressive system" that "must be condemned without reservation." The day he received his party’s nomination, Oct. 17, 2011, Hollande participated in a memorial for Algerian victims of French police 50 years earlier. And at an unusual moment in late April  — just one week before his runoff against Sarkozy — he dispatched a former justice minister, born to French parents in Algeria, to repeat his pledge to resolve all past disputes.

Nonetheless, a straightforward apology faces two serious hurdles.

First, Hollande must sort through complex emotions in France. The French were not alone in the scramble for North Africa. Their military fought in the Algerian war of independence for more than twice as long as it did for France’s own liberation during World War II. In 1962, when the French army withdrew, nearly a million settlers were forced to evacuate the only homes they knew. The settlers felt abandoned, and those who stayed behind were subject to kidnappings and disappearances. Some of those nostalgic for l’Algérie française included Hollande’s own father, a local politician who supported a right-wing, pro-colonial presidential candidate in 1965. One recent political profile concludes that Hollande "constructed his political identity in rejection of his father’s own choices."

Since both sides can point to senseless deaths and dislocation, albeit to different degrees, Hollande faces the challenge of acknowledging the traumas of this period in an evenhanded manner. On May 8, the day the French traditionally celebrate Germany’s surrender in WWII, the Algerians mourn the thousands of protesters killed in Sétif. On July 5, the day the Algerians celebrate independence, the French commemorate the infamous massacre of French civilians at Oran at the end of the war.

Second, there is the awkward question of the Algerian government’s democratic legitimacy. Hollande was a cheerleader for democratization in North Africa from the moment protests spread from Tunisia to Algeria in early January 2011, and he denounced his predecessor’s "silence" on the matter. Hollande’s own silence about irregularities in Algeria’s recent legislative elections and any warm words for the FLN-led Algerian government could be held against him later on. Algeria hasn’t seen uprisings on the scale of neighboring Tunisia or Libya, though the same frustration with a lack of democracy and rising food prices has led to a widespread discrediting of the formal political system and a rumbling undertow of small-scale unrest. A formal apology from France could be used by Bouteflika’s regime to shore up its own legitimacy and paper over serious deficits.

Surprisingly, former French President Jacques Chirac’s gestures toward French Jews might show a way to sidestep this domestic and international morass. In July 1995, 50 years after the end of WWII, the newly elected Chirac broke with years of official silence about the state’s role in an emblematic episode of the Holocaust in France: the 1942 Vel d’Hiv raid, when Paris police participated in rounding up thousands of Jews for deportation to concentration camps on Nazi orders. Chirac’s speech was resolutely specific and not a blanket apology. The republic "delivered her children to their executioners" when France "committed the irreparable" by helping to gather thousands of Jews in a staging area for deportation, the president said.

Chirac’s apology didn’t resolve all lingering bad feelings, but it initiated a healing process for French Jews. Within a few years, the government set up a fund to compensate French Jews whose belongings were seized or looted during the war, and established a foundation for the memory of the Holocaust with a broad pedagogic mission. Unlike Germany, France has avoided granting group status to claimants, preferring to compensate individuals instead — almost as if they were victims of a natural disaster, each with individualized damages to be repaid. This places a clear ceiling on liability and saves the state from recognizing "communities," which has been a bad word in France since the Jacobins introduced universal citizenship.

The French colonial experience in Algeria was vast, spanning from the Bourbon Restoration to the Fifth Republic. But several moments during the 1954-1961 war stand out and could serve as the premise for a targeted apology. For example, there are the numerous well-documented cases of torture and summary execution by French forces as well as the drowning of FLN supporters in Paris on the night of Oct. 17, 1961. The French government could begin by launching an investigation to compensate victims’ families where possible, setting up a modest presidential "truth commission," and establishing a public foundation dedicated to research on the war and the memory of its victims — which the Algerian government says is as high as 1.5 million. (A public foundation for French research on the wars in North Africa exists, but nothing dedicated to Algeria alone.)

The departure from Algeria marked the twilight of empire and closed one chapter of French history. It also marked the beginning of a new chapter characterized by the growth of an Algerian-origin population in mainland France. Two million more Algerians soon settled in France as migrant laborers. It’s estimated that nearly 10 percent of Frenchmen have a personal or familial tie to Algeria. These include those of Arab-Algerian descent, Berbers, descendents of European colonists, and Algerian Jews who were naturalized en bloc in 1870.

The lack of an official apology hasn’t prevented Algerians from integrating into French society. Indeed, the new president’s arrival coincides with a measurable increase in minority political participation. For the first time, France’s Assemblée Nationale counts four deputies of Algerian and Arab background. Two of his ministers were born to Algerian parents. The Algerian grandfather of his industries minister fought with the FLN against the French. So it’s safe to say that France has begun to digest the complex legacy of l’Algérie française.

With a soupçon of diplomatic courage, Hollande and his team could help turn the remaining two years of the Algerian president’s term into something more than the twilight of a lame duck. Bouteflika himself announced in May that the country’s political class resembled an "overripe orchard" — i.e., time to make room for the next generation to blossom — and that he would not run again for president. Saying sorry now would provide closure to the Algerian leadership, many of whom personally fought in the war of independence, and help transition the FLN to a post-revolutionary era.

Even if France didn’t believe this Algerian regime deserves the honor of a unilateral apology, withholding one strengthens the hand of nationalists who portray a hostile and conspiratorial Western bloc to justify their grip on power. In May, the prime minister drew connections between "the colonization of Iraq, the destruction of Libya, the partition of Sudan and the weakening of Egypt" as all being "the work of Zionism and NATO."

Hollande needs to find a way to issue French regret in a show of respect for the historical parties in power, while addressing the Algerian people’s yearning for internal reform as a counterpoint to French contrition. This bilateral relationship is critical in matters of security cooperation — from counterterrorism to the chaos in Mali — and it is worth billions in trade and natural gas contracts. Only once France and Algeria look beyond the colonial era can their vital collaboration work on behalf of the shifting regional dynamics — and not against them.

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