Macron’s reset in North Africa

On his second trip to Algeria, the French president seeks a future built on shared prosperity and a “reconciliation of memories” from the colonial past.

French President Emmanuel Macron visits the Saint-Eugene Cemetery in Algiers, Algeria, Aug. 26.

When French President Emmanuel Macron landed in Algeria yesterday at the start of a three-day visit, his agenda weighed heavy with geopolitical concerns: energy security, illegal immigration between North Africa and Europe, and the spread of violent jihadism in Africa.

Yet Mr. Macron has been careful to insist that this is not a “state visit,” but rather an opportunity to heal the strained relations of two countries that hold divided memories of a shared colonial past and the war that ended it. The time has come, he said shortly after arriving in the capital, Algiers, to “look back at the past with humility.”

One measure that the world may be making somewhat unheralded progress against war and inequality is an increasing recognition that societies, like individuals, deserve freedom from harmful pasts. Dozens of countries have wrestled with historical grievances through truth commissions. Some have sought models of financial restitution, others the grace to express remorse. Those processes of restorative justice often hinge on an acknowledgment that people on opposing sides of a conflict understand it differently.

France imposed its rule over Algeria for 132 years until a brutal, eight-year war finally broke them apart. And in 60 years since, leaders and intellectuals on both sides have used memory as a cudgel and an excuse for division.

It took France more than 40 years to admit that “the events of North Africa constituted a war.” The two sides still cannot agree on the toll. Algerians claim as many as 1.5 million of their own were killed during the fighting; French historians put that number at about 400,000.

Mr. Macron seems aware of the power of memory to divide – but also to heal. Two years ago he commissioned a report on “the memory of the colonization of Algeria and the Algerian war.” He has reiterated a pledge to open the national archives on colonialism and create a commission of historians “allowing us to look at the whole of this historical period ... without taboos.”

His trip was motivated to a degree by the need for atonement. In a fit of frustration over illegal immigration last year, he described the Algerian government as a “politico-military system” that derived its legitimacy through false memories of the liberation war. Although he recanted, it was evidence enough to critics in Algeria that France maintains a paternalistic attitude toward its former colonies.

“The imperative of reconciliation is problematic both in principle and in its probable political uses,” wrote Algerian historian Noureddine in a critique of the commission report in the Algerian newspaper Liberte. “For me there is good in conflict. Mastered, it is a force of questioning more powerful than reconciliation in the renewal of our respective historiographies…. It is not memory that regulates the relations between states, but interests.” Algeria needs investment from France, Arab analysts say, not friendship.

Yet as France’s first president born after the war, Mr. Macron has sought to align with a new generation of French people and Algerians who view the war as a reference point for peace. Last year he formed a dialogue among youth whose parents and grandparents had fought in or been displaced by the conflict.

“We are all driven by the same desire,” they wrote afterward, “to appease these memories [of war], to recognize them in their singularity, to heal the wounds still present in our society and to work for reconciliation and the construction of a shared future for the new generations.” Among their proposals were new art residencies for young French and Algerian artists to “create works that embody new places of positive memory.”

To see “truth as the widest possible compilation of people’s perceptions, stories, myths, and experiences,” observed Antjie Krog, a South African writer, is “to restore memory and foster a new humanity, and perhaps that is justice in its deepest sense.”

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