France urged to set up 'memory and truth' commission over Algerian war and colonial rule

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Henry Samuel
·3 min read
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Demonstration in Algiers for French Algeria in the 1950s - Daniele Darolle/Sygma
Demonstration in Algiers for French Algeria in the 1950s - Daniele Darolle/Sygma

France should set up a “memory and truth” commission over abuses during colonial rule and the war of independence in Algeria, a much-awaited report handed to Emmanuel Macron recommended on Wednesday.

It came as the French president’s office insisted he would issue no official “apology” for France’s occupation of Algeria and the bloody eight-year war that ended its rule, instead preferring “symbolic” gestures of reconciliation.

Successive French leaders have touched on the country’s fraught relationship with its former colony but Mr Macron - the first president born after Algeria gained independence - has gone further than any in recognising abuses during colonialism, which before his election he dubbed “a crime against humanity”.

In a move to build bridges, he asked respected historian Benjamin Stora to assess "the progress made by France on the memory of the colonisation of Algeria and the Algerian war”, which raged from 1954 to 1962, and suggest ways to bring “peace and serenity” to both sides.

Handed to the Elysée on Wednesday, the report stops short of calling for an official apology from France, saying that the "excesses of a culture of repentance" had been shown to be counterproductive in healing wounds over other conflicts.

Instead it recommends setting up a mixed French-Algerian commission to hear testimony from people who suffered during the war and work towards reconciliation.

It suggests publishing a “guide of the disappeared” to help locate and identify victims of the war on both sides. Other recommendations include creating memorials at the site of former Algerian prison camps in France where thousands were held and joint work on the “consequences” of nuclear tests in Algeria between 1960 to 1966.

France will "pursue and broaden" the opening of its archives on the war as work is underway to allow the release of classified secret documents, said Mr Macron's office.

Paratroops in camouflage hold back the crowds of European settlers in Algiers, 1961 - UPI PHOTO
Paratroops in camouflage hold back the crowds of European settlers in Algiers, 1961 - UPI PHOTO

The president also wishes to honour Gisele Halimi, a French feminist who supported Algeria's independence and denounced the use of torture by the French military during the war. He is due to proceedings to see her interred at the Pantheon monument in Paris, a resting place for France’s great and good.

Mr Macron took a first step in 2018 by formally recognising the responsibility of the French state in the death of a dissident in Algeria in 1957. It was the first admission by a head of state of the military's systematic use of torture during the war.

Next year, he is due to take part in three days of commemorations marking the 60th anniversary of the end of the Algerian war - each dedicated to a different group that suffered in the conflict.

Mr Macron raised eyebrows notably among descendants of the million pieds noirs of French Algeria who returned after the war by calling colonialism a crime against humanity in 2017. Several high-profile Right and far-Right figures in France said it had nothing to apologise for.

Mr Macron’s office said he had no regrets making the statement, adding: ”What more could he say? There is nothing more to say, however there is a lot more to do.”

It remains to see how the embattled Algerian regime, which has faced mass street protests, will react.

“The Algerian regime gets its legitimacy from the fight against the French,” one unnamed French diplomat formerly posted in Algiers told Le Monde. “The more France progresses in its work on remembrance of the war, the more it deprives (the regime) of its legitimacy,” he said.