Macron’s Comments on Algeria Resonate as Elections Loom

Macron’s Comments on Algeria Resonate as Elections Loom

PARIS — President Emmanuel Macron of France, addressing a community that has been fertile ground for the far right ahead of presidential elections this spring, on Wednesday acknowledged the suffering of the French and European colonists who fled Algeria after the 1954-62 war of independence and of their descendants.

“The 1962 exodus is a tragic page of our national history,” he said, adding that the colonists and their descendants “were not listened to” and “were not welcomed with the affection that every French citizen deserves.”

Mr. Macron’s speech was the latest step in a yearlong effort to resolve painful memories of France’s colonial past in Algeria. Following proposals made in a government-commissioned report, he acknowledged crimes committed by the French military and police and the state’s lack of regard for those who fled Algeria and had fought for France.

But it also came as Mr. Macron enters the final stretch of a bruising campaign to serve a second five-year term in which his government has moved increasingly to the right on issues prominent in far-right campaigning such as immigration and the place of Islam in France.

Over the past year, Mr. Macron has recognized the suffering of nearly every community affected by France’s colonial history in Algeria, including independence fighters and immigrants, and Algerians who fought on the French side during the war of independence.

“He achieved in six months what had not been done for 60 years,” said Benjamin Stora, a leading historian of the Algerian War and the author of the government-commissioned report.

But Mr. Macron’s speech Wednesday recognizing the suffering of the colonists, known as Pieds-Noirs, and their descendants, was notable for its timing three months before an election in a political environment marked by heated debates over immigration and Islam that have echoes of the French colonial past in Algeria.

The trauma of that history continues to shape modern France, with nostalgia on the right and resentment among the country’s large Muslim population.

The long shadow of France’s defeat in Algeria looms large in the rhetoric of Éric Zemmour, a far-right candidate for president whose parents left the country in the 1950s and who speaks of “reconquering” a France he says is being colonized by Islam and immigration. His message has resonated with many voters on the far right, leading to a jump in the polls last year that has gradually dissipated in recent months as Mr. Zemmour has struggled to broaden his base of support and attract working-class voters.

Mr. Macron last year started addressing the recommendations in the Stora report by acknowledging the brutal killing of a leading Algerian lawyer, Ali Boumendjel, by French soldiers. He also facilitated access to sensitive archives of the Algerian War and was the first French head of state to commemorate the mass killing of Algerian independence protesters by the Paris police 60 years ago.

The moves were widely criticized by the French right, which is still reluctant to openly criticize colonization, particularly the party of the far-right leader Marine Le Pen, the National Rally, whose origins are rooted in popular opposition to the end of colonial Algeria.

Mr. Macron then asked “forgiveness” for the abandonment of Harkis, Algerians who fought for France during the war and have often shown strong support for Ms. Le Pen, his main challenger in the presidential elections in April.

The Pieds-Noirs emigrated to Algeria from France and European countries, often as laborers and farmers, while the nation was under French rule, for about 130 years. After Algeria won its independence in 1962, about 800,000 of the colonists fled to France and many others who stayed were massacred. Their fate has long fueled resentment, and nostalgia for the colonial past, feelings that have often translated into support for the far right.

In 2017, while campaigning for the French presidency, Mr. Macron called the colonization of Algeria a “crime against humanity,” infuriating Pied-Noir organizations. His words on Wednesday struck a very different tone.

Responding to one of the main demands of the Pieds-Noirs, Mr. Macron officially recognized that French soldiers in March 1962 killed dozens of supporters of French Algeria. He also called for the mass killing of Pieds-Noirs by Algerian independence supporters to be “faced and recognized.”

Mr. Macron told the assembly that Pieds-Noirs and their descendants had experienced a “double punishment.”

“Having become persona non grata in Algeria,” he said, “you have sometimes had the feeling of being unwanted in France.”

While Mr. Macron has addressed many of the proposals in Mr. Stora’s report, he has so far been reluctant to entomb Gisèle Halimi, a famous French feminist and anti-colonialist lawyer, in the Panthéon, France’s tomb of heroes.

Following complaints by Harki and Pied-Noir organizations, Mr. Macron scrapped the idea and instead said that France would pay a national tribute to Ms. Halimi early this year. But Ms. Halimi’s son told the French press that he has not heard from the authorities for several weeks and that he feared they had abandoned the tribute. An adviser to Mr. Macron said authorities were still working on a plan.

While welcoming Mr. Macron’s efforts to acknowledge France’s colonial past in Algeria, some historians say his piecemeal approach, addressing each community separately, risked only fueling competing memories and that a single speech on the legacy of the Algerian War, encompassing all grievances at once, would have made more sense.

Sylvie Thénault, a historian of the Algerian war at the CNRS, France’s national public research organization, said the step-by-step policy amounted to offering a different, flattering form of remembrance for each different audience. “We’ll tell everyone what they expect,” she said.

Mr. Stora, who defends the step-by-step process, said that “each community had its own trauma” and that one “cannot address them all in an undifferentiated way.”

Adèle Cordonnier contributed reporting.

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