Updated: Jan 27, 2022
Caught between its duty of remembrance and truth-seeking, the French government finds itself in an uncomfortable position as President Macron makes controversial remarks on the supposed manipulation of colonial memory by the Algerian regime. Be they misplaced comments or a strategic maneuver, the statements nevertheless led to the deepening of a long-running diplomatic crisis.
In an attempt to address the bitter taste in the mouth of the populace, which still remains almost 60 years after Algeria acquired its independence from French colonizers, French President Emmanuel Macron invited young people whose families have experienced the war to an informal meeting.
While Macron addressed the common griefs and sufferings of both Algerian and French nationals on several occasions, he did not conceal his exasperation with the Algerian government for “playing the victim card”. The French Head of State did not mince his words when expressing his opinion on the Algerian state, which he described as “built on the hatred of France” and ruled by a “political-military system” that he accused of rewriting history (Le Monde 2021a).
Macron even went as far as to question the existence of an Algerian nation before French colonization—a statement that caused a lot of controversy, as Algerians saw it as a direct affront to their own identity (C dans l’air 2021).
Clearly agitated, the Algerian government proceeded to call-back to its French Ambassador for consultations (Le Monde 2021b). Furthermore, the state made the decision to ban French military planes from Algeria’s airspace, including those contributing to the Barkhane Operation, an armed struggle carried out by France against Islamic groups in the Sahel, Africa (Le Monde 2021a). This declaration is of symbolic value, as it was no sooner than 2013 that Algeria, under the rule of the former French President Hollande, finally granted France the right to fly over its territory (C dans l’air 2021). Thus, the severity of this response provides evidence of weakening diplomatic relations between the two countries which are bound by a shared history.
This diplomatic failure did not, however, occur out of the blue. Some unforeseen circumstances had already paved the way to the sensitive context in which these events took place. French Interior Minister Darmanin, recently announced the significant reduction of the number of visas granted to immigrants from Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia (The Guardian 2021). This decision came as a response to the Maghreb governments’ refusal to re-admit their nationals when they—on account of delinquency, radicalisation, or absence of a residence permit—were expelled from France. (Le Parisien 2021).
While some might question the true motivations of such measures, and see them as a strategic attempt on the part of Macron to seduce his far-right electorate (as part of an implicit campaign for reelection for which he still hasn’t publicly declared his candidacy), it undoubtedly sets the tone for the diplomatic escalation that seems to be taking place (Le Point 2021).
Nonetheless, the vigor of the Algerian response should not merely be understood as a reaction to the brusqueness of the President’s claims, but rather as a necessary attempt to reassert the country’s power and credibility. Weakened by the government’s social and economic failures revealed by a high emigration rate, and by a past it struggles to move on from, Algeria’s main purpose might be to restore its image in the eyes of the public opinion rather than deteriorating its relation with France (Le Monde 2021b).
Unprecedented Work of Memory
Notwithstanding the current diplomatic crisis between the two countries, Emmanuel Macron has, since his election, brought a new hope for Algerians to have their side of the story acknowledged. In 2017, he recognized colonization as being a “crime against humanity” (Le Monde 2017). As the first French President to be born after Algeria’s Independence, and therefore not trapped in the emotional memory of colonial history, Macron committed himself to making an effort towards a “reconciliation of memories” (C dans l’air 2021). To this effect, the historian Benjamin Stora delivered, at the President’s request, a report on the memory of colonization. (Elysée 2021). While poorly received by Algerians, this unprecedented work undeniably shows the French government’s will to acknowledge and enable a co-existence of the different experiences of a shared past which, 60 years later, still remains sensitive (Le Monde 2021a).
Following the recent events, Macron called for a “simmer-down” of the situation. He further claimed to have “very cordial relations with the [Algerian] President [Abdelmadjid] Tebboune” (Le Monde 2021a).
While the two countries have always had tumultuous relations, their economic, political and historical links will always remain. Macron, who made the goal to “reconcile memories” a central focus during his term, collaborates with both experts and the younger generations towards a potential—if yet attainable—“common reading” of the past (C dans l'air 2021).
Whether Algeria and France will ever find a middle ground or be doomed to manage a tense coexistence of their incompatible truths, remains debatable. It is nevertheless a process which, according to the French President, requires both sides to admit their responsibility; a task that must “be done with great humbleness, and great respect” (Le Monde 2021a).
Written by Victoire Tissinié, Amsterdam Chapter of European Horizons
C dans l'air. 2021. "France/Algérie : Les Nerfs à Vif." France TV, October 5, 2021. https://www.france.tv/france-5/c-dans-l-air/2787171-emission-du-mardi-5-octobre-2021.html
Chrisafis, Angelique. 2021. "Macron in Visa Cuts Row as Algeria Summons French Envoy." The Guardian, September 30, 2021. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/sep/30/emmanuel-macron-under-fire-about-visa-cuts-as-algeria-summons-french-envoy
Elysée. 2021. "Remise du Rapport sur la Mémoire de la Colonisation et de la Guerre d’Algérie." January 20, 2021. https://www.elysee.fr/emmanuel-macron/2021/01/20/remise-du-rapport-sur-la-memoire-de-la-colonisation-et-de-la-guerre-dalgerie
Kessous, Mustapha. 2021. "Le Dialogue Inédit entre Emmanuel Macron et les « Petits-Enfants » de la Guerre d’Algérie." Le Monde, October 2, 2021. https://www.lemonde.fr/politique/article/2021/10/02/vous-etes-une-projection-de-la-france-emmanuel-macron-s-adresse-aux-petits-enfants-de-la-guerre-d-algerie_6096830_823448.html
Le Monde. 2017. "En Algérie, Macron Qualifie la Colonisation de « Crime contre l’Humanité », Tollé à Droite." February 2, 2017. https://www.lemonde.fr/election-presidentielle-2017/article/2017/02/15/macron-qualifie-la-colonisation-de-crime-contre-l-humanite-tolle-a-droite-et-au-front-national_5080331_4854003.html
Le Monde. 2021a. "Emmanuel Macron Appelle à l’« Apaisement » avec l’Algérie Après ses Propos Mal Perçus." October 5, 2021. https://www.lemonde.fr/international/article/2021/10/05/macron-appelle-a-l-apaisement-avec-l-algerie-apres-ses-propos-mal-percus_6097158_3210.html
Le Monde. 2021b. "L’Algérie Rappelle son Ambassadeur à Paris et Interdit son Espace Aérien aux Avions Militaires Français." October 2, 2021. https://www.lemonde.fr/afrique/article/2021/10/02/l-algerie-rappelle-son-ambassadeur-en-france-pour-consultations_6096878_3212.html
Le Parisien. 2021. "Visas pour les Pays du Maghreb : «Tant que Vous Ne Reprenez pas Vos Compatriotes, On N’Accepte pas Vos Compatriotes», Affirme Darmanin." September 29, 2021. https://www.leparisien.fr/politique/visas-pour-les-pays-du-maghreb-tant-que-vous-ne-reprenez-pas-vos-compatriotes-on-naccepte-pas-vos-compatriotes-affirme-darmanin-29-09-2021-MPDKGEI5AVBD3NBSINUR2RINCA.php
Le Point. 2021. "Visas : Les Médias Algériens Soulignent l’Enjeu Electoral pour Macron." September 29, 2021. https://www.lepoint.fr/afrique/visas-les-medias-algeriens-soulignent-l-enjeu-electoral-pour-macron-29-09-2021-2445478_3826.php