The French Colonial Drama Replayed in Algeria

Published October 15th, 2021 - 07:53 GMT
Protest in Algiers
Algerians take part in a demonstration against ailing President Abdelaziz Bouteflika on March 22, in the capital Algiers. (AFP)
While France’s silence on its colonial role in Algeria may work domestically, the future of European and North African relations is closely impacted by Paris’s silence.

Algerian-French ties are mired in controversy after the persistent issue of responsibility for colonial crimes has resurfaced again. 

The ongoing diplomatic row comes after negative comments attributed to French President Emmanuel Macron regarding Algeria were published in a Le Monde article on October 2. 

The controversy shows no signs of abating, with Algeria’s government accusing France of “genocide” on October 2, before banning French military aircraft from flying through its airspace a day later. Macron has expressed wishes for “appeasement”, but little to no action has been taken by either side to rectify the Franco-Algerian crisis.

Turkey also criticized the French statement, particularly its description of 300 years of Ottoman-Algerian rule as colonialism, suggesting this “cheap approach” would not aid Macron ahead of French elections in April 2022.

“Algeria is fully aware of right-leaning French views towards Arabs. Muslims and Algerians alike. This is an unacceptable escalation in rhetoric and policy, with false criticisms levelled against the Algerian Hirak movement, and Algerian history.” notes an Algerian diplomatic attache based in the Arab Gulf who spoke to TRT World, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

READ MOREFrance’s ‘Muslim’ problem and the unspoken racism at its heart

“It’s not unreasonable to expect regret and reparations for the deaths of millions, and it's perfectly reasonable to expect the deaths of over a million Algerians not be used as a chip for upcoming elections. Let me add, if France can issue apologies to the Polynesians, why not the Algerians? Are we less human, or do we enjoy different rights?,” asks the Algerian attache.

Algeria recalled its ambassador from France, with his return contingent on “total respect for the Algerian state,” said President Abdelmadjid Tebboune. 

Generational trauma

In Algeria, the effects of French colonialism still linger in collective memory. By no means a novel concept, French psychoanalyst Franz Fanon was the first to document the extent of colonial trauma in his book The Wretched of the Earth (1963). 

Drawing on his clinical experience in Algeria, Fanon links colonial violence to the rise of multiple pathological behaviours. 

Contemporary Algerian psychoanalyst Karima Lazali also makes a similar case in her book The Colonial Trauma (2018), and a more recent unpacking of its impacts in another book published in 2021

Lazali argues colonial violence gave rise to constant malaise, persistent suspicion, self-mutilation, loss of the father figure, and even a collective ‘death drive’, while enabling ‘social inertia’ and the ‘relinquishment of being’. 

She notes that while many French feel weighed down by their awareness of a colonial history they never experienced, Algerians still struggle with the effects generations later. This includes trauma from French colonial policies that imposed new names on people and the land, breaking up families and groups. 

READ MOREHow France engineered North African ethnic rivalry to further colonisation 

Lazali also points to intentional French colonial policies geared at severing ties between the Algerians and their culture, tradition, religion, community, history, language and genealogy, giving rise to feelings of loss, injustice, and abandonment.  

A bone to pick

While Macron’s stance seems to correlate with the rise of the far right within the French republic and the increasing prevalence of systemic and societal Islamophobia, there are deeper disputes between the two nations.

For one, French administrations have historically eschewed recognition of France’s role in the colonization of Algeria, resulting in the deaths of at least 1 million Algerians during its war of independence alone, from 1954 to 1962. 

While Macron has previously described colonialism as a “crime against humanity”, acknowledging France’s use of torture, Algerians feel that the statements fall short of genuine regret or action. 

Over five million Algerians died at the hands of French colonialists in a span of a century and a quarter, according to Algerian President Abdelmajid Tebboune. The Algerian League for the Defense of Human Rights, however, puts the number at 10 million in a report it published in 2017.

“We all know that a speech isn’t binding and doesn’t mean policy. Be honest. Tell your people about the hundreds of thousands of Algerians tortured in the name of ‘public order’ and ‘counter-insurgency’. Tell them about the dehumanization of 'barbaric' Arabs, electric shocks to genitalia. What of the rape, burying old men alive, guillotines, hangings, waterboarding, sleep deprivation, and burnings?,” says Ahmed Soufianne, a recent graduate of law from Algeria's Guelma University who spoke to TRT World

Throughout 132 years of French colonization, at least five million Algerians lost their lives. Algerian historian Mohammed al-Amin believes that the number of dead could be as high as 10 million, in sharp contrast to the 400,000 deaths admitted to by French historians. 

Much like other British or French colonies, Algerians were forced to serve as expendable soldiers in France’s wars, as early as 1830. They fought in the Franco-Prussian war (1870), and World War I which saw nearly 100,000 Algerians die fighting the Imperial German Army.

During World War II, nearly 233,000 Algerians fought for the liberation of Southern France from the Vichy Regime in 1944 including campaigns in Italy and Germany from 1944-1945. 

A recent conference held at Emir Abdelkader University, Constantine estimated that France also looted nearly $180 billion in treasure, gold and silver throughout its colonization of Algeria.

Moreover, while France is only beginning to engage with its history of 193 nuclear tests conducted over three decades in its former colony French Polynesia, it has yet to recognize or admit to its nuclear tests in Algeria. 

READ MOREFrance alarmed by radiation, a colonial legacy still lingering in Algeria

Algerians contend with higher incidences of birth mutations, cancer and thyroid disorders to the present day. In March 2021, a French NGO raised the alarm on high levels of radioactive dust reaching the French-Swiss border, carried by southern 'Sirocco' winds from Algeria’s desert.

On January 21, Macron responded to a 145-page report by French historian Benjamin Stora by declaring there would be no apology for the French colonization. 

One of the recommendations made by the report was the return of the sword of Emir Abdelkader, which remains in France, including admission to assassinations and abductions of notable Algerians. 

Commissioned during the heart of the Yellow Vest crisis to appease left-wing voters, the report nonetheless omits mention of atrocities committed during France’s war of conquest in Algeria, including the use of scorched earth policies. The report is also accused of taking an anti-decolonial stance on war crimes.

An official from the Macron government has been unequivocal that there “there is no question of repentance. Repentance is vanity,” one said.

Last year France returned 24 skulls of men who died fighting French occupation, having been on display in a Parisian museum Paris, with little in the way of apology or recognition, and only after years of campaigning and activism. 

Geopolitical ramifications

In a follow-up statement to the controversy, Macron emphasized that Tebboune was “trapped in a system which is very tough.”

While the ongoing Hiraak has lost momentum in Algeria amid the Covid-19 pandemic, Algeria’s ruling government is increasingly cautious around a more empowered, vocal population.

President Tebboune, who is already perceived as an unwanted leader by a major segment of the opposition, could ill afford to avoid confrontation in the face of Macron’s comments. 

With Algeria’s Hirak movement campaigning for over a year on the need for restoring dignity, building accountability and initiating reform, Macron’s domestically-aimed comments seem to have overlooked a new Algeria, relative to only years ago. 

“Our foreign partners need to decolonize their own history,” said Algerian Foreign Minister Ramtane Lamamra while abroad on a trip to Mali. 

"They need to free themselves of certain attitudes, certain behaviours, certain visions which are intrinsically linked to the incoherent logic driven by the west's claimed mission to bring civilisation," he added. 

The recent escalations could be indicative of a changing geopolitical scene as a changing Algeria increasingly engages with the region. 

This shift is marked by domestic developments, including forming an Algerian Agency for International Cooperation (AACI) in April 2020, led by former senior intelligence colonel Dr. Mohamed Chafik Mesbah, who holds a doctorate in political science and international relations.

The appointment comes as Tebboune allegedly seeks to shift previous military-dominated issues back to a civilian-led presidency, with a revamped focus on African foreign policy which saw a major decline under the late former president Abdelaziz Bouteflika. 

The pivot could lead to further regional tensions, particularly if Algerian foreign policy impacts French hegemony in Western or Sub-Saharan Africa. 

Regional build-up

The global Covid-19 pandemic has posed severe economic challenges on the Algerian state, which has seen a steady decline since 2018. 

“Remember that France is also concerned that recent developments could see Algeria move deeper into the Chinese and Russian camps. Most submarine and fighter jet procurements come from Russia,” notes the Algerian Gulf-based diplomatic attache.

“Algeria’s navy is modernizing and growing at an incredibly rapid speed even though it has stayed out of all Mediterranean disputes so far, and it’s been an internal priority since 1993. While it’s nowhere near France, it is aiming for naval supremacy in North Africa at least,” he adds

Algerian defence procurements also show deeper ties with China, following the purchase of a number of frigates, anti-tank missiles, and CH-4 drones. Morocco has since invested in Turkish TB2 drones, in addition to a more recent order for Israeli kamikaze drones.  

Algeria is China’s oldest partner in the region, suggesting that North African tensions could quickly take on a proxy-nature between major powers.

Algerian naval growth is domestically touted as a necessary measure against to man it’s 1440 kilometre coastline, the longest coast of any African nation. 

Its significant historic naval tradition is often left unspoken, as it saw Algeria dominate the Western Mediterranean between the 16th to 18th century, until a disastrous series of naval wars with the fledgling United States and Portugal permanently set back its naval influence.  

More recent capabilities such as submarine launched mid-range cruise missiles, alongside training exercises with the Russian Black Sea fleet and NATO maritime groups indicates a growing naval footprint in the region that has traditionally been dominated by British and French naval interests.

Inevitable clash

Tensions between France and Algeria are growing increasingly intractable, as France avoids direct engagement on issues of past colonial violence and reparations. 

“It’s a bed of nails for any French President, regarded as baggage from previous administrations, effectively a form of political suicide for any French politician to speak of apologies or reparations,” says Mark Jefferson, an analyst for Stratton Consulting Group.

“French politicians aren’t in denial. It’s just deeply unpopular to tackle it head-on given the present polarism in domestic French politics. Until it’s resolved, it’ll continue to play out in other arenas,” adds Jefferson.

Domestic politics in France have lead to the shut down of nearly 30 mosques in less than a year through powers offered by its ‘anti-separatism law’,  dubbed an ‘anti-Islam’ bill, with 6 more mosques set to be shuttered for allegedly housing “extremists”.

With over $50 billion in trade between Algeria and the EU, and an increasingly visible Algerian energy, naval and political presence in the region, tensions with Algeria carry an economic and political cost that now extends beyond direct bilateral ties.

For most Algerians, recent French actions not only avoid recognition of past misdeeds, but also reflect growing Islamophobic and xenophobic rhetoric and policy ahead of upcoming French elections; itself a result of historical and modern systemic racism within France.

While French policy towards colonialism is inevitably affected by its domestic policy pressures and priorities, one thing remains certain; avoiding a dark past that continues to impact the daily lives of Algerians is not sustainable, and may impact ties irreparably. 

“Domestic priorities change with every electoral cycle, and French politicians need to not only engage with the consequences of their legacy, but also ask themselves what kind of country they believe they are. Getting ahead of it could mitigate damage. The alternative is following a darker, undemocratic path with anti-religious laws, second-class citizens and systemic racism” notes Jefferson, analyst.

Regardless of who has been in power, Algerians have consistently demanded recognition for their painful experiences under French rule, since supported by growing numbers of sociological, psychological, historical and ethnographic studies detailing life under colonization. At the least, they expect respect.

While French presidents have avoided the subject given domestic pressures, a resolution is unlikely to appear in the near future, making continued confrontation between Algeria and France on the issue all but inevitable. 

Adam Bensaid is a deputy producer at TRT World.


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