Macron’s Algeria Report Isn’t Progress, It’s a Whitewash.
France lost the Algerian War but is still controlling the narrative about its history—while refusing to apologize or pay reparations.
The maxim that history is written by the victors could well be reversed in the case of the Algerian War of Independence, and the imperial project that preceded it.
Although Algeria won its independence from France, the vanquished colonizer is still seeking to dictate the nation’s history. Indeed, as the 60th anniversary of France’s overwhelming defeat in 1962 approaches, the country responsible for one of the most repulsive episodes in colonial history is determined to control the narrative.
To this end, President Emmanuel Macron’s administration has just released a new report on the memory of colonization and the Algerian War, firmly placing the presidential seal of approval on a woefully one-sided document.
It attempts to describe how and why the relationship between Algeria and France remains a troubled one and offers proposals for improvement. Everything from better public information about colonialism to the return of pillaged artifacts from Paris to Algiers is suggested as a means of bolstering Algerian-French diplomatic ties.
The report is already hugely controversial because of what it has failed to recommend: an apology. Despite losing the jewel in their empire following more than a century of lethal subjugation, including nonstop crimes against humanity, the French apparently do not think they were barbaric enough to show any contrition.
Forget the use of napalm and gas chambers to wipe out civilians, the massacre of Algerian protesters in towns and cities including Paris, the systematic use of torture, or terrorism carried out by an ultra-nationalistic Secret Armed Organization (OAS) made up of French police and army officers opposed to a liberated Algeria. Introducing the new 146-page document, a spokesman for Macron was adamant that there would be “no repentance, nor apologies.” The express political purpose of this statement was ostensibly to prevent history being used to open up further division. But in reality, it allows France to evade responsibility.
The profile of the Macron-appointed author of the report gives a clue as to why it is so one-sided. Historian Benjamin Stora is an academic based in Paris, not Algiers. Moreover, he comes from a family that fled Algeria along with hundreds of thousands of European colonists in 1962. Like almost all the one million settlers of European origin, who were known as pieds–noirs (Black Feet), Stora’s family was ultimately displaced by members of the indigenous Arab Muslim and Berber communities who continue to inhabit Algeria to this day.
Despite this history, Macron considered Stora to be the right scholar to shed light on a vexed subject that still affects those living in the largest country in Africa by land mass, and their diaspora, which is estimated at about 800,000 in France. Stora’s original remit also included helping to bring about “reconciliation between the French and Algerian peoples,” but on the evidence so far, this objective is unlikely to be achieved.
Rather than an apology, reparations, and the possibility of prosecutions, tokenism and a desire to downplay unspeakable crimes that are in living memory appear to have guided Stora’s work. There is also much manipulation.
This becomes immediately clear when, in the introduction to his supposedly historical inquiry, Stora focuses not on colonial-era savagery, but on the brutal recent attacks carried out in France by Islamist terrorists. He specifically refers to heinous crimes that are wholly unrelated to Algeria, including the beheading of a schoolteacher by a Russian passport-holder in a Paris suburb, and three killings of Roman Catholic churchgoers by a Tunisian immigrant in the southern city of Nice.
Yet according to Stora’s misguided reasoning, such atrocities are in fact relevant to modern Algeria. He later elaborates on this unproven link, writing that educating Muslim youths about “colonization and the Algerian war” is a “necessary safeguard” against the spread of “Islamist terrorism.”
There is certainly immense value in teaching facts about the French Empire. Its rule over much of continental Europe under Napoleon Bonaparte at the beginning of the 19th century is crucial to understanding modern France, as is its colonial oppression of other parts of the world at other pivotal points. Distortion is, however, inexcusable.
What Stora is doing is echoing a contentious Macron speech on what the president calls Islamist “separatism” from last October, in which he spoke about “the traumas” of France’s “colonial past”—and particularly the Algerian War—“feeding unspoken resentments,” which allegedly radicalize youths and lead to terrorist attacks.
This populist trope—one that features in far-right conspiracy theories—is that today’s Islamist terror is directly connected to angry Algerians who remain as incorrigibly violent as they were when they resisted French rule. This caricature goes back to the early days of colonization, when Arab Muslims were considered morally inferior to Christians.
Establishment France now suggests that the kind of fiends who carry out evil acts are in fact motivated by what happened to their Algerian parents or grandparents. This is not only disingenuous in the extreme, but a diversion from what the French did to the Algerians over 132 years, since they first invaded their homeland on July 5, 1830.
In this respect, there is plenty of evidence that Stora could have investigated. Some 45,000 Algerian civilians were slaughtered in the Algerian towns of Sétif, Guelma, Kherrata, and the surrounding areas over a few days in May 1945 alone, for example. France, the country of the Enlightenment that claimed to be pursuing a “civilizing mission” abroad, perpetrated the sort of genocide for which it would become renowned in Algeria.
Pieds-noirs militias joined in the bloodbath after a May 8 celebration of Victory-in-Europe Day, at the end of World War II in 1945, turned into a demonstration calling for Algerian independence. There were atrocities on both sides, but as usual the French had the upper hand in terms of weaponry and sheer barbarism.
It was the same type of extermination program as the one instigated by Marshal Thomas-Robert Bugeaud, France’s governor general of Algeria in the 1840s. This scorched-earth policy sought to subdue Algerians, so as to place pieds-noirs anywhere “there is fresh water and fertile land … without concerning oneself to whom these lands belong,” Bugeaud pledged in a parliamentary address. He invented gas chambers long before the Nazis, filling caves with noxious fumes in order to asphyxiate a detested underclass—and “exterminate them to the last one.”
Such mass murders were typical of an unrelenting conflict that became a full-blown war in 1954. Algerians estimate that it claimed 1.5 million of their citizens, including those fighting with the FLN, or National Liberation Front. The dead included men, women, and children who were indiscriminately obliterated by French carpet-bombing.
Napalm—referred to in military jargon as “special barrels”—was part of the payloads dropped on civilian communities, while a popular method of executing enemy fighters was to push them out of planes and helicopters.
France also used the southern Sahara desert of Algeria as a nuclear-testing ground. This, combined with the 11 million land mines planted by the French over vast swaths of the country, have killed and maimed tens of thousands of Algerians.
Of the 1.5 million military personnel mobilized throughout the War, the French lost some 25,000 soldiers, as well as up to 3,000 pieds-noirs militias and as many as 150,000 Harkis (Algerians who collaborated with the colonizers).
Despite fighting for France, many of the latter ended up being treated with as much brutality as the FLN. After the war, many were abandoned to those carrying out reprisals in Algeria or interned in squalid camps in France.
Colonial repression tactics were imported from Algeria to mainland France when up to 300 Algerian men taking part in a peaceful pro-independence demonstration were shot, beaten up, and tortured to death or drowned in the Seine in Paris, many in full public view, by police on one night—on Oct. 17, 1961. Scores of lifeless bodies washed up for weeks afterwards.
Historians have described this massacre as “the bloodiest act of state repression of street protest in western Europe in modern history.” The fact that not a single prosecution was ever carried out says everything about the secrecy and cover-ups involved, and the sense of injustice felt by surviving victims.
President Charles de Gaulle, who had guided France through World War II while in exile, was considered a traitor by nationalists for conceding in 1959 that the Algerians were entitled to self-determination.
Even when OAS terrorists blew up a Strasbourg to Paris train, killing 28 French civilians in June 1961, there was no effective investigation, judicial or otherwise. OAS targets included De Gaulle himself—there were multiple failed assassination attempts, including an infamous gun attack on the president in his Citröen limousine.
Beyond the lack of an apology, the headline recommendation of the report is the setting up of a “Memory and Truth Commission”—one that will be headed by Stora, and which will try to produce a definitive guide to what really happened.
There is nothing new about such commissions. South Africa set one up to attempt to heal the country after apartheid. Its hearings were widely regarded as constructive because of how they uncovered facts on live television. A South Korean Commission probed an often-terrifying history, including mass executions, torture, and forced disappearances which took place from 1910 to 1945 under Japan’s rule of Korea and through subsequent authoritarian Korean regimes.
Both cases are cited by Stora as models of truth-seeking missions. However, those commissions may have hastened reconciliation or brought closure—but they did not deliver justice for the victims and their families.
In terms of available information about Algeria, Stora has his work cut out. France’s executioners were always protected. Up until 1999, the French government was still calling the war itself “operations to maintain order” or merely “the events.” The problem, therefore, is acknowledging the evidence that exists, rather than “finding” it. The French have the complete archives, but object to full disclosure.
Since independence, the French have made it extremely difficult to get hold of archival documents and little is being done to resolve this issue surrounding files classified as state secrets.
The Algerian government has asked Abdelmadjid Chikhi, the director general of the National Centre of Algerian Archives, to conduct his own inquiry alongside Stora and wants the restitution of their entire colonial archives from Paris.
Much of the opposition to rigorous research comes from those with a background in the Front National (FN), the far-right party founded by Jean-Marie Le Pen, an Algerian War veteran who was linked to acts of torture and who is now a convicted racist and Holocaust denier.
Le Pen’s early political goal was to lobby on behalf of the hugely bitter pieds-noirs class who had swapped their colonial lifestyles for far more modest ones in mainland France. Such far-right nostalgists now rally behind Le Pen’s daughter, Marine Le Pen. She renamed the FN the Rassemblement National (RN), but it has lost none of its antipathy toward Algerians.
The fact that Marine Le Pen was Macron’s principal rival before he won the French presidency in 2017 highlights that there are millions of voters who share her reactionary views. It’s no secret that Macron, a self-styled centrist liberal who is moving increasingly to the right, covets many of these voters, especially in the run-up to another election to choose a head of state in 2022.
The toothless Stora report feigns an interest in justice while whitewashing colonial crimes; it shows Macron is doing everything to try to win over Le Pen supporters.
This is typical of Macron. Ever the inconsistent wheeler-dealer, he visited Algeria during his 2017 campaign and said that colonization was a “crime against humanity,” adding: “It’s truly barbarous and it’s part of a past that we need to confront by apologizing to those against whom we committed these acts.”
Quite how this statement fits in with the latest words from the Élysée Palace is anyone’s guess—but the contradiction between 2017 and 2021 reveals a great deal about Macron’s abject cynicism when it comes to attaining his self-serving political goals.