In a recent program on AlJazeera, Algerian Djahid Younsi (from El-Islah party) and Libyan Elhadi Chellouf (a martyr’s son) debated over the “Why do Arabs request an apology? And are Arab rulers not worse than the colonisers?” question. As often with AlQasim’s programs, the debate led nowhere. Chellouf said that the colonisation was great and he would be happy to sit in a French or Italian tank were they to invade the Arab countries again. He added that the Arab populations should rather request an apology from their rulers instead of targeting the gentle and kind colonisers. On the other hand, Younsi admitted that the Arab rulers are the worst ever, but he said they should be faced on the political field. And this situation shouldn’t prevent the people from requesting the rightful apology for the confirmed colonisation crimes.
This debate was probably triggered by the recent Algerian assembly’s law proposal about criminalising the colonisation. But before coming back to this point, I would like to mention some key events:
- In 1998, the French parliament decided to recognise the Armenians’ killing by the Ottomans as a genocide. Needless here to say that this decision was due to the big influence of the Armenian diaspora in France, and it was also part of the internal debate on whether Turkey should or should not be admitted in the EU. The Turks complained and threatened the French government to reduce economic ties, but the threats weren’t really followed by actions. They also tried to show the unbalance in this French decision and brought up the topic of French actions in Algeria.
- In 1999, the French parliament finally recognised the Algerian War of Independence, which is thus not called “Events of Algeria” anymore.
- In 2003, the French president Jacques Chirac visited Algeria and was welcomed by hundreds of young people shouting “visa, visa”. But the biggest part of the population didn’t care much. The visit went well as France was in a power position: It represented the front against the American’s plans to invade Iraq, and Algeria was still suffering from the 90s decade effects. The history aspect was only mentioned when Chirac returned Dey Hussein’s seal as a sign of “reunion between the two countries and between the [two] peoples”. The two presidents agreed on working towards the sign-off of a friendship and partnership treaty.
- In February 2005, the French parliament passed the French law on colonialism which basically imposed on high-school teachers to teach the positive role of the French presence overseas to their students. This unworthy law was opposed by many leftist politicians and by many historians (such as the famous Benjamin Stora). In Algeria, this law caused a storm and all political parties showed their discontent. But as usual, the Algerian government was mild and the foreign affairs minister, Mr. Bedjaoui, declared that the law was surprising but it’s a Franco-French issue. Jacques Chirac postponed a visit to Algiers planned on June 2005, and eventually repealed this law in 2006 and declared that “Writing history is the job of the historians, not of the laws”.
- In May 2005, and during the 1945 massacres‘ commemorations, Abdelaziz Bouteflika declared that Algeria “never ceased waiting for an admission from France of all the acts committed during the colonial period and the war of liberation.” He also compared the French burning of thousands of Algerian bodies after the massacres with “the ovens of the Nazis”. This declaration did of course not please the French politicians who counter-attacked by asking Bouteflika to study with France the case of “the 150,000 Harkis killed without another reason than revenge, by the FLN”.
- In 2006, Bouteflika declared in Paris that “colonisation brought the genocide of our identity, of our history, of our language, of our traditions”. The French foreign affairs minister responded that the two countries should share a mutual respect, and called to make a common effort to search history “in order to establish a common future and overcome the sad pages”.
- In 2007, Nicolas Sarkozy became the president of France; and with him disappeared the soft side of France’s right-wing. Among other things, Sarkozy based his campaign on nationalism/patriotism and on the recovered self-respect of the French people. He clearly stated that France would never apologise for what it did in Algeria because, he said, children are not responsible of their parents’ actions. He also said that apology and repentance was not good for the French national feeling. During his visit in Algeria, he repeated the same message and added that the friendship treaty is no longer a priority. Pragmatic as ever, only mattered to him the contracts he could sign with the Algerian government for the French companies (China and the USA are economic threats to France in Algeria).
Note that during this visit, many Algerian politicians (including a minister) launched attacks on him, his Jewish origins and his ties with the Jewish lobby. And the Zionist Enrico Macias, who was invited by Bouteflika, decided to cancel his visit after the Algerian mobilisation against him.
- In 2009, the French parliament decided to pay a compensation for the victims of French nuclear tests. This included the tests in Reggane and Tamenrasset. But today this compensation is probably not enough even among the French victims as only a few could have it. And an Algerian group even rejects it and wants France to recognise its crime against humanity instead.
- In 2010, some FLN members of the Algerian parliament made a proposal for a law which would criminalize the colonialism. This law would also push for the creation of special courts to judge war criminals. The proposal, which was an answer to the French law of 2005, was voted but will probably face the same fate. Nonetheless, it at least caused some unrest among the French politicians. The French parliament members condemned it, and many French ministers said they regretted it. The French foreign affairs minister went even further as he declared that this proposal wasn’t important as we know that, in Algeria, the power is in the hand of the government and not the parliament (which is correct), and so long as the Algerian government doesn’t move, he wouldn’t react. But days later, he declared that “the Franco-Algerian relations will be good only after the Algerian independence generation will leave the power”. This last sentence pushed some Algerian ministers to respond and remind him that Algeria is sovereign, etc.
- Three days ago, Sarkozy visited Rwanda and declared that France’s role during the Rwandese genocide was a big mistake. But he didn’t admit the French responsibility nor did he apologise. These might never happen as suggested in this article. And we know well that Rwanda is turning towards the USA, and teaching English replaced French; so we can easily imagine that this visit’s goal was mainly to recover France’s position in this region of the world where the USA are having increased influence.
Anyway, the idea behind recalling these points was to show that all this talk is done at the level of the politicians, and that nobody really cares of the peoples’ opinions. History is said to be written by the winner, but here it is also used as a weapon by the politicians for domestic and foreign purposes.
I believe that those who would benefit most of an apology are the French people, as this would lighten their consciences and hearts about their past and help them face it. So this apology should be requested by the French themselves for their own sake, just like the Germans did with the Jews. But I feel the French are not ready for it yet. Many of them do genuinely believe that their conquests brought knowledge and civilisation to the occupied countries. They still believe that the Algerians were a bunch of ignorant people when France invaded the country, just like they believe Napoleon’s campaign enlightened Egypt. They are so unaware of the atrocities their armies committed, let alone the ravages they did on the indigenous’ cultures and societies.
They still have issues with their own history related to WWII, and their compatriots’ collaboration with the Nazis. And while I mention this point, it is interesting how they refuse to compare their “collabos” to the Algerian Harkis. They indeed defend the latter, but at the same time despise them as it was seen here and here.
As an Algerian citizen, I don’t care at all about the French apology as it wouldn’t change anything in my life, in my relation with Algeria, nor in my relation with France. I of course understand the game our politicians play with France and I think it’s alright (the timing of these apology requests matched with some affairs such as Mecili‘s or the Tibhirine monks‘). But using this game with the Algerians is not healthy. I mean I would like to see our politicians care more of things which would improve the situation of Algeria and Algerians instead of spending so much time and energy on this topic. I would like them to be committed and truly working for the benefit of the country and its people, so that nobody dares compare them to the colonialist regime, or wishes the colonialists back. And if I take the Libyan/Italian example, what did the Italian apology bring to Libya? Nothing, or maybe some self-admiration for the Colonel and more contracts for Italy.
I want Algeria to no longer be influenced by France, neither positively nor negatively. I want the Algerian decisions to be real ones and not reactions to or copies of the French ones. I want us to stop removing and adding back the France related part in our National anthem depending on the temperature of our relations with the French state.
Today we Algerians know so little about our close history, let alone the remote one. We probably still ignore many secret points in the Evian accords, but I always thought that these accords guaranteed that no actor (from both sides) would be sued and no compensations would be demanded (not even for the treasures the French stole from Dey Hussein’s reserves); which would make any compensation requests ludicrous.
The only way these apology requests could be interesting in my opinion, is if they would lead to real financial compensation (if possible that is), or also to have access to the French archive on the Algerian occupation period.
If the apology is there only for me to feel good as in “the French acknowledged that they wronged me” then well I don’t need it.