Memories are to be shared

It will have to be the Algerian diaspora inside France who will eventually have to mainstream the truth of France's colonial legacy.

Rivesaltes concentration camp, France. Image credit Isabelle Blanchemain via Flickr CC BY 2.0.

Just sixty years ago, on July 5th, 1962, Algeria became independent after an eight-year-long anticolonial war against France. However, the remembrance of this conflict has long been tainted by the negationist discourse of the French state. French authorities have traditionally avoided issues of financial reparations and apologies, too often trying to offload their responsibility for the atrocities committed on Algerian soil by silencing counternarratives. In 2017, Emmanuel Macron became the first French president to define the colonization of Algeria as a crime against humanity. This constituted a small yet important development in France’s politics of memory and made way for discussions on how best to elevate marginalized voices in the remembrance of the conflict. But has France really fulfilled its obligation to take responsibility for the violence perpetrated in Algeria? And has it been able to stimulate collective consciousness in an inclusive, unbiased, and historically accurate way?

The Algerian War is well-known for its high number of casualties, which by some accounts exceeds 500,000. But the war is also remembered for the wave of immigration that it triggered. In the years following the end of the conflict, an estimated 1 million French and European settlers (also referred to as pieds noirs) and 350,000 Algerians migrated to mainland France from Algeria to flee political instability or seek better economic opportunities. Whether it is experienced through language, religion, food, or architecture, Algerian identity has since become an elemental feature of French society. It only takes a stroll on the streets of Paris or the coastal city of Marseille, where Darija Arabic is the second most spoken language, to grasp the deep cultural ties that continue to shape French-Algerian relations sixty years after independence. Even among pieds noirs communities, certain cultural traits acquired in Algeria, like specific foods or linguistic attributes, have stood the test of time. The heritage of the Algerian War is therefore not confined to the diaspora—it is an inalienable feature of French society.

To celebrate this connection, the Museum of Civilizations of Europe and the Mediterranean (MUCEM) in Marseille has recently launched an exhibition recounting the life of Algerian freedom fighter Abd el Kader (1808-1883). The exhibition attempts to reveal a new side of the story and promote new ways of remembering the colonization of Algeria by placing an important Algerian figure under the spotlight. However, visitors cannot help but notice that the exhibition is imbued with colonial rhetoric. Indeed, Abd el Kader is repeatedly portrayed as the “fierce warrior who ends up surrendering to a love of France.” Abd el Kader, who led nothing short of an Algerian intifada and spent four years in a French prison after his capture, is eventually depicted kneeling and kissing the hand of president Louis Napoléon after his release. This striking image helps create a distorted representation of historical reality by placing the French colonial administration in the position of savior and pacifier. It also sheds light on France’s reluctance to shoulder its responsibilities and fully acknowledge the harm committed in Algeria.

The remnants of France’s colonial past in Algeria are still visible in many French cities. Streets and schools named after colonial officers are plentiful and have recently been the target of criticism from civil society, notably members of the Algerian diaspora. In Marseille, for instance, backed by influential anti-colonial organizations and the Socialist Party, mayor Benoît Payan is actively challenging France’s politics of memory. In May 2021, he announced that a school bearing the name of Thomas Bugeaud, an officer involved in the conquest of Algeria, would now sport that of Ahmed Litim, an Algerian soldier who served in the French army during World War II. Payan claimed that Thomas Bugeaud’s name holds an unbearable symbolism given the horrific methods of repression that he used to control Algeria. He also justified this measure with reference to the size of the Algerian community in Marseille. Payan hopes that similar measures will follow and that the Algerian diaspora will feel represented in the remembrance of French history.

Unfortunately, these initiatives are faced with increased political polarization and resistance from right-wing populist movements. The recent presidential elections were marked by the rise of right-wing candidate Eric Zemmour and the popularization of “great replacement theory,” according to which a hostile Islamic civilization is replacing France’s Christian one through immigration. This recent surge in political xenophobia is directly contributing to the repression of Algerian identity and to the silencing of counternarratives arising from the diaspora. Additionally, right-wing populists continue to enforce a particular interpretation of France’s colonial history, often emphasizing the presumed benefits of colonization. For instance, on June 26th, 2022, the city of Perpignan paid tribute to French Algeria during a large event organized by the Cercle Algérianiste, an association known for gathering those who are nostalgic for French colonial empire.

In France, counternarratives are necessary to truly understand the country’s history. In this regard, projects promoting and elevating the voices of Algerian communities in the remembrance of the Algerian War are crucial. While some public initiatives like the Abd el Kader exhibition point to a shift in France’s perception of its own history, they also reveal that that remembrance is still embedded within colonial thinking. Instead, true change will arise from France’s civil society, in which the Algerian diaspora is gaining visibility. It is this latter group that will eventually promote its own side of the story—and force upon skeptics and deniers the truths of French colonialism.

Further Reading