Could the politics of memory win elections? French President firmly believes so

The 60th anniversary of the end of the Algerian war will be marked in March next year, just before the first round of the French presidential election. The Algerian War (1954–1962) ended 132 years of French colonial rule. The two countries have had complex relations ever since.

Algerian independence meant the end of the previous French political and institutional system. From its ashes emerged the present Fifth French Republic in 1958. And the issue has long been explosive for the French right.

In particular, the far-right Front National has nurtured a fictional narrative of nostalgia for the “French Algeria” and, more generally, for the former colonial empire. It is a subject that many far-right voters find “personal”. The founder of the Front National, Jean Marie Le Pen, was himself an intelligence officer during the Algerian War (and was recently accused of being involved in torture, which he denied). And since the 1980s, the so-called Pieds-Noirs, people of French origin born in Algeria and emigrated after independence, have long favored the far-right party, especially in Southern France.

Their importance in elections cannot be neglected. According to Ifop, Pieds-Noirs represented 800,000 voters in 2014. But people who claim descent from Pied-Noir make up 7% of the French population (3.1 million voters). In southern France, however, they make up between 11% and 15% of the electorate. Numbers may be much higher. French soldiers and Algerian auxiliaries (called “Harkis”) who fought for France. But also Algerian immigrants and French people of Algerian descent. They all share a painful relationship with Algerian history.

Despite this delicate context, French President Emmanuel Macron has taken the hard road of reconciliation with Algeria. A few months ago, he officially declared that Ali Boumendjel, a prominent Algerian lawyer and nationalist, did not commit suicide in 1957, as France had long claimed. He had been tortured and killed by French soldiers. France, however, had continued to claim he committed suicide, although the French general Paul Aussaresses admitted in a book published in 2001 that he had killed Boumendjel by throwing him from a sixth-floor window.

It was not the first time Macron had personally weighed in on the issues. Not yet president, he had called the French colonization of Algeria a “crime against humanity.” He had also said he was determined to overcome the trauma that had soured relations with Franco-Algerian. After becoming president, he had appointed Benjamin Stora, an eminent French historian, to head a commission on the legacy of colonization and the Algerian war of independence. The Stora report, published in January, called for, among other things, recognition of the truth about Boumendjel’s murder. Macron, however, stressed that there would be “no regrets or apologies.”

Algerian authorities have criticized the commission’s findings for failing to apologize for French colonial-era war crimes. The government spokesman called the report “unobjective” because it “puts victims and executioners on the same level.” After a year, Algeria has still not published its report. The adviser in charge of national archives and memory Abdelmadjid Chikhi accused Paris of waging a “fierce battle against the components of national identity,” namely the Arabic language, Islam, and ancestral customs and traditions. On the negotiations between the two parties on the return of the archives, temporarily suspended because of the coronavirus pandemic, he again expressed doubts about France’s political will to bring these talks to a successful conclusion.

Meanwhile, opponents of President Macron accused him of mobilizing memory as a political tool. A mere electoral maneuver supposedly aimed at strengthening ties with a strategic electorate. Historically, French voters with North Africa ancestry have supported left-wing parties. But in 2017, the voting bloc was deeply fractured. According to Ifop, 37% voted for left-wing populist Jean-Luc Mélenchon and 28.5% for Emmanuel Macron.

This kind of accusation has even been applied to Macron recently. A few days ago, the French President met with the Harkis to apologize for their treatment. The Harkis were the Algerian auxiliaries of the French Army during the Algerian War. When De Gaulle withdrew from Algeria, they were left in the country, even though the French government promised to protect them. Many were massacred. Others tried to reach France and were placed with their families in internment camps in degrading conditions. Macron asked for forgiveness from “the abandoned fighters and their families.” But the French right and far-right criticized Macron’s actions as opportunistic. The Harkis have always been a kind of political property of the right.

Despite Macron’s political interest in seducing these voters, it should be noted that the French President has been actively pursuing a politics of memory since the beginning of his term. As he told the conservative newspaper Le Figaro, the politics of memory “makes France stronger” through the reconciliation of “broken memories.” What is lacking, Macron said, is “a homogeneous national discourse” to hold together “Pieds-Noirs, Harkis, French conscripts, French soldiers, Algerians who then came to France, their children, and binationals.”

This is the enduring legacy of the philosopher Paul Ricoeur, for whom Emmanuel Macron was the assistant in the early 1990s. The French philosopher defined the idea of “right memory” (la juste mémoire) as a balance between forgetting and an excess of memory. For society, too much remembering is just as bad as forgetting.

Not everyone agrees with this approach to memory. Sarah Gensburger and Sandrine Lefranc, political scientists at the CNRS, believe that Macron has “an ultra-pragmatic vision of conflict resolution.” In this conflict, he is the “mediator who brings the protagonists to the table to organize and, if possible, reconcile the approaches.” But this kind of reconciliation does not manage to “change the social structures”, they say.

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I am a political analyst, journalist, and community manager originally hailing from Venice, Italy, but now living in Paris with my American husband.

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Marco Michieli

Marco Michieli

I am a political analyst, journalist, and community manager originally hailing from Venice, Italy, but now living in Paris with my American husband.

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