What’s in an apology?

In a recent interview on a private Algerian TV news station, French presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron called France’s colonial history an act of barbarism and a crime against humanity; if elected head of state, he would issue an official apology to all victims of colonialism.

With this condemnation and promise, coming already more than half a century after the independence movements that marked the end of the old colonial project, Macron, the leader and founder of the progressive En Marche! party and current front-runner in what has proven a turbulent race, has rekindled a divisive debate in France ahead of the first round of voting on April 23.

Polling suggests that the country is almost evenly split in its opinion of colonialism (those who agree with Macron have a very slight edge over those who disagree). From across the political spectrum his comments have elicited strong reactions, although, predictably, the sharpest criticism has come from the right.

Marine Le Pen — Macron’s main competitor and candidate for the right-wing Front National and for whom colonialism rather perversely represents the positive sharing of French values — responded by accusing him of disloyalty to France.

Le Pen’s response is in keeping with the nationalist rhetoric that she has used to great effect throughout her political career and especially during this presidential race, which has come in the wake of a series of extremist attacks in the country. Indeed, her reaction reveals a disturbing tendency in France: because of the history of atrocities committed by the French government and its citizens, the strong tradition of French Republican pride, which rests on equality and universal human rights, requires a second, twin tradition of amnesia and revisionism in order for it to appear unsullied.

One might recall that former president François Mitterrand maintained that he would “not apologize in the name of France” for Vichy’s complicity with the Nazi government. It was Jacques Chirac who issued a full apology in 1995, half a century after the Holocaust.

In Algeria, Macron’s condemnation of colonial violence was met with approval by several public figures and political leaders. Algerian politicians, for whom such a statement is long overdue, are largely bitter about the issue of an apology for colonialism: for the French government to choose not to recognize the torture, rape, killing, seizure of property, and assault on dignity suffered by Algerians at its hands amounts to arrogance and callousness. Admitting that these atrocities were committed under colonialism and during the Algerian struggle for independence, would bring necessary closure.

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By Lina Benabdullah and Igancio Villalon

Credit picture: Candidate for the 2017 French Presidential Election Emmanuel Macron deposited a sheaf of flowers at the Martyr’s memorial on February 14, 2017 in Alger, Algeria.