In a recent speech on Islamist extremism, Emmanuel Macron described France as “a country with a colonial past and traumas it still hasn’t resolved, with facts that underpin our collective psyche. The Algerian war is part of this.” Mr Macron has made similar remarks throughout his presidency. An estimated five million French residents have links of some kind to Algeria, and the shadow cast by the colonial experience is long and divisive. Nostalgic exiles and French military veterans, led by the ex-paratrooper Jean Marie Le Pen, were instrumental in the formation of the far-right Front National.
The Algerian diaspora in France has a rather different take on the age of empire. Previous presidents have simply steered clear of a war associated with national humiliation, savage violence and imperialist racism. But in a country with one of the largest Muslim populations in Europe, Mr Macron has concluded that this official amnesia has become untenable.
Ahead of the 60th anniversary of Algerian independence next year, he has decided that the process of “unpacking” the past must be kickstarted from the top. The Élysée has announced that a “memories and truth” commission is to be established, charged with reviewing France’s colonial history in Algeria. Closed archives are to be opened up to establish a “recognition of the facts” and a “reconciliation of memories”. Artefacts and documents are to be returned from Paris to Algiers. The ordeals of nationalist figures such as the lawyer Ali Boumendjel, whose murder in 1957 led to protests from the writer François Mauriac, will be belatedly acknowledged. A series of commemoration days will be devoted to different aspects of the colonial experience, including the role of the Harki soldiers who fought alongside French troops.
Mr Macron is to be congratulated for opening the windows and letting in some air. The strategy, orchestrated by the leading French-Algerian historian Benjamin Stora, is to examine all sides of a toxic history. But it risks being undermined by a controversial omission. As a presidential candidate in 2017, Mr Macron condemned the French colonisation of Algeria as a “crime against humanity”. He was the first president to admit that France carried out systematic torture in Algeria, arguing that the misdeeds of the past needed to be faced with “courage and lucidity”. But despite widespread criticism, and angry statements this week from the Algerian government, the Élysée has insisted that the work of the memories and truth commission will not be accompanied by a formal French apology for its imperial role in Algeria. The notion of reparations has also been pre-emptively ruled out.
Mr Macron is perhaps wary of stirring up a patriotic controversy ahead of next year’s presidential elections, when he will almost certainly face a runoff against Marine Le Pen. It is also true that appalling acts were committed on both sides in a vicious conflict. But for all parties to move on from a bitter and traumatic episode, France must surely acknowledge its primary responsibility, as the colonial power, for the brutal war between 1954 and 1962. Not to do so smacks of the kind of evasion that Mr Macron has railed against.
A quarter of a century ago, in another act of painful memory, Mr Macron’s predecessor Jacques Chirac publicly acknowledged French complicity in the rounding up of Jews during the Nazi occupation. It was a moment of national catharsis. If Mr Macron’s admirable ambition to heal the wounds of the colonial past is to be realised, a similar act of contrition is surely required in relation to the Algerian war.