As Algeria celebrates (quite silently) the 50th anniversary of its independence this year, for a few this event continues to be seen in France as a reminder of a defeat, even an amputation, while for others, hopefully many more nowadays, it sounds as the end of a useless and endless war and such an unfair, iniquitous and anti-republican colonial system that it has been broken on the wall of history.
What exactly was the colonization? As some recent facts proved the question is not pointless, despite the enormous work of historians and the relative outbreak of the official memory over the last decade. Let’s keep in mind that seven years ago the majority of the French parliament (then dominated by the right-wing Party UMP [Union for a Popular Movement]) did not hesitate to consider that, altogether, the colonization in Algeria has triggered positive effects because of the roads, schools and hospitals built at this time and voted a law engraving in marble this idea — until a presidential decree of President [Jacques] Chirac came to abrogate this infamous law. This still reflects what a large part of right-wing politicians think about the French colonization in general, and in Algeria in particular.
The colonization, meaning taking a territory by force, settling it and, not only ruling, but also dominating a people is the opposite side of all values of humanity and progress that are prevailing in the modern world. The political, juridical and administrative system brought about by colonization is the corollary of a ration[ing] of powers, which also leads to a sense of servitude. And based on the idea that some people are culturally, even intellectually superior to others and should therefore donate a part of their brilliant civilization [to those who otherwise] would be deprived, the colonial principle implies a racial apartheid.
In Algeria, segregation has been implemented and legitimated by France’s institutions and hidden in a legal rut in order to minimize it, even ignore it. In Algeria — which was in fact French departments, such as Bouche-du-Rhône or Vaucluse [Algeria was officially incorporated into France from 1848 until independence in 1962] — the inequality between “Europeans” and non-Europeans, i.e., Muslims, was the rule in all fields: taxes, access to public service and education, military service, etc. All the infrastructures, roads, schools and hospitals, which were considered in 2005 as part and proof of a positive effect of colonization, were built for the exclusive benefit and comfort of the settlers, not for the colonized people who were excluded. The status of the so-called “French Muslims of Algeria” (FMA) was totally subordinated to that of the French settler. Deprived of citizenship and with minimal civil rights, the FMA owned a sort of empty nationality, accompanied by a qualification — “French Muslim” — that was used to make his difference, and thus highlight his inferiority. Therefore considering the beneficence of colonization is for those who suffered from it an intolerable provocation.
But this fiftieth anniversary is also an opportunity to take stock. In Algeria, where it has been crucial to build the nation in the aftermath of independence, the cult of martyrs cannot alone take the place of a real policy. We don’t rule a nation with ghosts and memories. The Algerian regime, even grasped in the Arab Spring’s upheaval (which in many respects reminds one [of the conflict] that gave birth to the civil war [1990-2002] in the early ’90s), has to evolve, reform, open [and] adapt. Fifty years after 1962 and the conquest of liberty for millions of Algerians, it is now a democracy that it is urgent to build.
In France, things are different. For us, shuffled by history and circumstances, this fiftieth anniversary agitates and disrupts our memories and revives a latent pain. This is neither deeper nor more superficial than the pain of all those who hastily left Algeria at the end of the Independence war, arriving penniless in France and having to start from scratch. There is no hierarchy of suffering. But for us, French citizens of Algerian descent, July 5th sounds not really as the defeat of one side or the victory of the other, but still as the sore and grievous echo of an official silence that should not last anymore.
The relationship between France and Algeria now requires a new breath and a few initiatives. This relationship must be special and basically different from all other bilateral relations because Algeria has been part of France for not less than 132 years and because the French children and grandchildren belonging to the Algerian immigration are the complex outcome of this troubled history.In the last presidential election these have once again overwhelmingly voted for the left and the Socialist Party, both by rejection of former President [Nicolas] Sarkozy and by supporting the Socialist candidate — current President [François] Hollande — who has always expressed interest and sympathy for Algeria and immigrants. All these people of Algerian descent in France now expect from the French president a new attitude about Algeria, in the same way that on the other side of the Mediterranean Sea most of Algerians are waiting for a peaceful and constructive relationship with a country they like and which they are linked by language, family or history.
In this context, appeasement is partly a matter of justice. It has nothing to do with the buzzword — and delicate concept — of repentance that took place in the public debate in France over the recent years. Young French and Algerians who carry with them a fragment of their countries’ troubled history do not want any apologies or regrets. If French officials repent of what France committed in Algeria, it would only sharpen [the pain of] old wounds among the French settlers’ [descendants] and undermine a little bit more the national cohesion. Conversely, this fiftieth anniversary must be the matrix of reconciliation, and primarily among the youth. For that purpose, only one quite simple thing has to be done: Recognize the facts.
On July 16, 1995, at the Vélodrome d’Hiver in Paris, for the first time in history, President Chirac recognized the responsibility of the state for the crimes against Jews committed during the Occupation. This was a break in the way France faces its history and after President Chirac both President Sarkozy and President Hollande aligned themselves on this position. For the first time, the highest officials have assumed the facts established by historians. Why [are they] not doing the same with colonization as it has been tragically implemented in Algeria?
President Hollande plans to go to Algeria before the end of the year. This state visit could be an opportunity to finally recognize and assume, officially, the harmfulness of the colonial project. Fifty years after the dislocation of a colonial system designed and implemented within a republic which, as a credit to itself, has been [deemed] misguided, this official recognition of the state responsibility would honor our country, its values and ideals, and contribute to stop the acrimony that alters the political relationship between France and Algeria. It may come to a new era, for the youth of both countries and all those who will come later.
Karim Amellal, a French-Algerian author and lecturer (Paris Institute of Political Studies), is a founder and CEO of Stand Alone Media.