Report on France’s Colonial Past in Algeria Spurs Criticism, Little Action

Tree-lined Avenue Bugeaud, cutting through one of Paris’ more elegant neighborhoods, may be under threat. Calls are growing to re-baptize the street, named after a colonial-era French general, whom critics blame for the death of thousands during France’s conquest of Algeria. Earlier this month, the city’s deputy mayor, Laurence Patrice, indicated she might be favorable to studying the matter.That’s been one of the few concrete moves since January’s publication of a much-awaited report on France’s troubled history in Algeria. President Emmanuel Macron, who commissioned it, has accepted a key recommendation of establishing a “memory and truth commission,” along with another — not to apologize for France’s colonial past. Hundreds of thousands of Algerians died over more than 130 years of French rule. Today, however, there is silence from the government on when the truth commission will be up and running — or on a raft of the report’s other recommendations on ways to reconcile a still-painful past. And as Paris and Algiers eye a key marker next year — the 60th anniversary of Algerian independence — the way forward remains unclear.  Rather than helping both sides move on, the report by respected historian Benjamin Stora has mostly grabbed news for the avalanche of criticism it’s triggered on both sides of the Mediterranean.Backdropping its conclusions is a decades-long fight over the truth. Successive French presidents have refused to apologize for the country’s colonial rule. Macron has gone further than most, describing as a presidential candidate in 2017 France’s occupation as a crime against humanity — a remark that drew outcry at home.Not so from Algeria’s aging, hardline government, whose roots spring from its bloody 1954-62 war of independence. And while the country’s majority young population sees that period as ancient history, many — including members of the Hirak anti-government protest movement — venerate memories of revolutionary heroes, while anti-French sentiment remains strong.FILE – French troops seal off the historic casbah quarter, in Algiers, Algeria, May 27, 1956.A ‘buried’ past? In France, center-right parties have offered a largely low-key response to the Stora report, and some leftist ones have even praised it. But key members of the country’s sizable Algerian diaspora have given it a thumbs down. “Rather than an apology, reparations, and the possibility of prosecutions, tokenism and a desire to downplay unspeakable crimes that are in living memory appear to have guided Stora’s work,” wrote prominent French-Algerian journalist Nabila Ramdani in Foreign Policy. For their part, Algerians known as Harkis, who fought on France’s side during the independence war, say they are also disappointed. “For me, this report hasn’t forgotten the Harkis, it’s buried them,” writer Dalila Kerchouche, the daughter of a Harki, told the Le Monde newspaper. On the other side of the French debate sits Perpignan’s mayor, Louis Aliot, of the far-right National Rally party. He tweeted “shameful” in reaction to Stora’s recommendations, which he said denigrated the memories of French war victims. Similarly, sharp criticism is coming from Algeria. After an initially muted response, Algiers said last week the report “lacked objectivity” and in particular failed to acknowledge “war crimes and crimes against humanity” committed by France as colonizer, according to government spokesman Ammar Belhimer. The country’s main war veterans group similarly slammed the findings as “concealing colonial crimes.”Algeria, however, has yet to publish its own take, from a parallel research effort into the colonial past. Abdelmadjid Chikhi, the historian tasked to do so, has refused to comment on the Stora report.Meanwhile, a pair of French and Algerian activists have posted an online petition to erase former General Bugeaud’s name from every French school and street sign. It was long ago removed from a main square in downtown Algiers, and replaced by that of 19th-century colonial resistance fighter Abdelkader.FILE – A soldier guards the remains of 24 Algerians at the Moufdi-Zakaria culture palace in Algiers, July, 3, 2020. After decades in a French museum, the skulls of the 24, decapitated for resisting French colonial forces, were formally repatriated.Tasked to restitute memoriesBorn to a Jewish-Algerian family from Constantine, Algeria, Stora saw the Algerian revolution unfold firsthand. His family ultimately headed to France when he was 11 —just days before Algeria’s independence in July,1962. He has defended his report as being faithful to its original purpose. “I was tasked to restitute memories, mostly French ones,” he told Le Monde recently, of his appointment by Macron last year. Stora acknowledged, however, that he might have “passed a little too quickly on Algerian memories and the colonial trauma.” He did not recommend France apologize for its colonial past. Rather, his report outlined a raft of specific measures Paris could take — from investigating old French nuclear tests in Algeria, to restoring Algiers colonial-era government archives — which Stora argues will make a bigger impact. For ordinary Algerians, he said, including those from the Hirak protest movement, coming to terms with history is particularly difficult “given the profound public sentiment that their history has been dissimulated or confiscated.” “On both shores, misunderstanding exists,” Stora said. “And this complicates, all the more, efforts at reconciliation.”

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