On 19 March 2022, French President Emmanuel Macron spoke at a ceremony commemorating the sixtieth anniversary of the Evian Accords. This agreement between the French state and the Algerian FLN (National Liberation Front) introduced a cease-fire in the midst of a violent war of liberation (1954-1962), paving the way for Algerian independence. This speech was Macron’s most recent attempt to “calm” the polemics that surround the historical memory of the war. Previous acts include his statement that the French colonization of Algeria constituted a “crime against humanity,” his commemoration of the massacre of Algerians in Paris on 17 October 1961, and his acknowledgement of the role of the French state in the torture and murder of French communist Maurice Audin (1932–57). Macron claims these gestures will help foster a “reconciliation” between France and Algeria and allow different groups in the French Republic to peacefully co-exist (vivre ensemble).
If these are indeed his concerns, the policy of reconciliation is fundamentally misguided. This speech was another well-staged act of political theater with Macron making a real effort to seem somber and emotionally sensitive (something that has not always come easily to the former banker). If his ultimate goal is to foster peaceful relations among France’s various communities, he should tackle the root issues of social unrest rather than the alleged “silences” or “denials” surrounding the Algerian War of Liberation. He should re-evaluate the myriad policies that have made France a less democratic, less egalitarian, and more Islamophobic place in the last five years. For example, the 2021 Global Security Bill expanded the power of the police and further limited individual freedoms. Amnesty International called the bill “dangerous,” and claimed that French authorities had used illegal practices to silence critics of the law. Macron has also cracked down on environmentalists and leftists. Rather than accepting Macron’s show of good faith, it is more credible to view this speech as a willful misdiagnosis of the real issues currently afflicting France.
As a historian, I cannot refute the claim that historical reflection is an important part of civic life in a democracy. Yet Macron is clearly not interested in the complexities of historical research, instead hoping that reconciliation will allow the nation to “move on” from past traumas. His goals are eminently political, something that is especially clear during an election year when the question of France’s racial minorities is a hot button issue. Moreover, Macron cannot be credited with initiating the messy work of articulating more complicated narratives of the Algerian War of Liberation; Historians, artists, and grassroots activists on both sides of the Mediterranean have long been engaged in such discussions. Lastly, the suggestion that Algerians need the French state to offer them a definitive version of their own history is quite frankly insulting.
So why is Macron doubling down on offering the Republic history lessons on the War of Liberation? Because focusing on historical memory as the unique legacy of the War allows him to elide a host of other issues. It is striking to see how the French state is unable to honestly face the ways that the Algerian War has impacted its trajectory and practices since the 1960s. One of the legacies of decolonization is the long history of racial profiling and policing in France. Just last year, various grassroots organizations filed a law suit against the French state, documenting how racial minorities are disproportionately targeted by identity checks.
Another legacy of the Algerian War is the French state’s pejorative representation of Muslims, even as it simultaneously undermines attempts to identify and redress Islamophobia. Macron's ministers have repeatedly decried an “Islamic separatism” that supposedly undermines the Republic by promoting communitarian feelings and fueling radicalism. Since 2020, the French state has been engaged in a policy of systematically amalgamating anti-racist organizations with violent groups (notably terrorists and far-right insurrectionists). This confusion has led the Ministry of Interior to dissolve a number of groups dedicated to fighting Islamophobia, such as the Collective Against Islamophobia in France (CCIF) and the Coordination Against Racism and Islamophobia in France (CRI). France is following a now well-worn model of invoking terrorism to introduce authoritarian (and neoliberal) policies, something we have also seen in the United States and India.
A third legacy of France’s colonial history is a blatant disregard for the democratic demands of people in the Middle East and North Africa. Macron’s decision to give the Legion of Honor, France’s most prestigious award, to Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, is particularly striking. His cozying up to Saudi Crown Prince (and de factor ruler) Mohamad bin Salman, also continues a long neocolonial tradition of undermining aspirations for justice and self-determination in the region.
In his speech, Macron mentioned the “falsification” of history that has been used to defend Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. I can only concur that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invocation of the Russian Empire is fundamentally biased. We should keep in mind, however, that Russia does not have a monopoly on using history for unsavory political ends. Nor should we fall into the trap—perfectly set up by Macron’s discourse—of thinking that France’s alleged Republican values makes its leaders immune from distorting or politicizing the past. Indeed, even when they pretend to be objective, state narratives are by nature political. French politicians and those close to the state, who remain largely incapable of self-reflexive historical analysis, cannot be responsible for providing an official or conclusive history of the Algerian War.
We should interpret Macron’s spectacle for what it was: a way of distracting us from the real issues facing the French Republic. By propagating a discourse that focuses on a “denial” of the past, Macron is able to perpetuate legacies of Islamophobia and authoritarianism in the present.