‘Memory’ issue still an obstacle to normal French-Algerian relations

Despite Macron’s flexibility, no concrete progress has been achieved so far and the process could revert to square one.
Thursday 07/01/2021
French President Emmanuel Macron (C) lays a wreath at the Martyrs’ Memorial in the Algerian capital Algiers during his visit on December 6, 2017. (AFP)
French President Emmanuel Macron (C) lays a wreath at the Martyrs’ Memorial in the Algerian capital Algiers during his visit on December 6, 2017. (AFP)

ALGIERS --Algerian political circles expect that France’s delay in revealing the content of the settlement reached by a memory committee formed between the two countries on the issues of history and collective memory could lead to a new impasse despite the flexibility shown so far by the two sides.

Based on pledges from Paris, memory issues were expected to be settled at the beginning of this year, but there is nothing on the horizon so far.

Ambiguity still surrounds the fate of the work by the joint committee headed by historians Benjamin Stora and Abdelmadjid Chikhi.

The French president previously told Jeune Afrique magazine that “(the publication of) the results of the committee’s work will take place early this year, and that it will be a satisfactory outcome for both parties.” However, no further details have been announced.

The idea to appoint two history experts to work on the memory file came at the initiative of French President Emmanuel Macron and his Algerian counterpart Abdelmajid Tebboune, as an illustration of “the will of reconciliation between the French and Algerian peoples,” according to the Elysee Palace.

The French side handed over to Algeria the skulls and remains of the leaders of Algeria’s popular resistance movement during the war, which had been on display at the Museum of Man in Paris, as part of the two parties’ settlement agreement. Algerian authorities considered the concession to be an important achievement in the interest of national memory.

It seems that Algerian authorities are not open to more wavering on the file. In recent years, Algeria issued a demand for France to present an official recognition of and apology for its role in the colonial era, in exchange for the establishment of a relationship of equals between the two countries.

Political parties are also pressing for a law criminalising colonialism. But in an answer to a question about the initiative, Chikhi, who advises the Algerian presidency, said “the criminalisation of colonialism does not need a law, and the Algerian people… criminalised colonialism long ago.”

The senior official pointed out that passing an official law to criminalise French colonisation of the country (1830-1962) is not a priority for authorities “because the Algerian people… criminalised it long ago.”

Analysts believe that an inability to move beyond the past prevents the files of the French colonial era in Algeria from being closed. They also say that the political class, which is going through a state of uncertainty, is exploiting the memory issue and the colonial file to evade the political, economic and social crisis afflicting the country.

About a year ago, numerous parliamentarians submitted  a bill to criminalise France’s colonisation of the country between 1830 and 1962 to the parliament speaker’s office. But the parliament’s steering office has still not opened the file, prompting some MPs to issue a statement condemning “the unknown reasons that… blocked the project.”

The initiative, which was signed by 50 representatives from pan-Arabist and Islamic parties, stipulated that “the request for France to recognise its crimes and actions during its occupation of Algeria from 1930 to 1962, and to apologise for them is a legitimate right of the Algerian people and cannot be waived.”

The files of history and memory have remained the biggest obstacles to putting Algerian-French relations on track for many decades since independence.

Despite the flexibility shown by Macron in settling the issue, the delay in implementing the set agenda could lead to an impasse and bring things back to square one.