France apologises to its Algerian collaborators


Seven months before the French presidential elections in April, Emmanuel Macron has taken one of the most difficult steps in the semi-levelled history of the Algerian war: to apologise on behalf of the Republic to the Harkis, the Algerian former combatants recruited as auxiliaries of the French army in that war. In front of a representation of some 300 survivors, the French head of state not only took this important step in acknowledging the state's responsibility for the suffering of the Algerian natives who served his cause, but also promised to pass a bill in which the nation would recognise their suffering. This action would also be accompanied by a 300-million-euro budget for possible compensation.

The Harkis were considered traitors by their Algerian compatriots, and as soon as independence was proclaimed, the hunt for those who could not flee the former colony was relentless. Atrocious tortures preceded public executions, and their families and descendants were singled out and stigmatised.

Only a few thousand managed to embark on the expeditions that repatriated the French, mostly thanks to the mercy and individual actions of some military personnel and former colonists, many of them in contravention of orders that called for their pure and simple abandonment. The fate of those collaborationists in France was not an easy one either. Confined in "transit and marshalling camps", they would spend years consuming their lives in inhumane and traumatic conditions before being incorporated into the lower strata of the host society.

Putting an end to ambiguity once and for all

Following the report commissioned by Macron himself from the French-Algerian historian Benjamin Stora and delivered by the latter to the Elysée last January, the French president decided to put an end to "the ambiguity latent in this period of French history" and to tackle the Algerian war from all angles. Despite some dissenting voices, the Stora Report has been the trigger for this process of France's reconciliation with its immediate past. The recognition now of the suffering of the Harkis is a huge step forward, as Macron not only acknowledges their misfortunes but also those of their descendants. Thus, in a very measured ceremony at the Elysée Palace, the president decorated three very representative individuals with various degrees of the Legion of Honour: Salah Abdelkrim, a harki wounded in combat; former general François Meyer, the military officer who contravened superior orders and organised the repatriation of hundreds of these Algerian collaborationists; and Bonia Tarall, the daughter of a harki, "a militant for equal opportunities and diversity", as a symbol of this incorporation into French national history.

Macron's determination to heal the wounds and sores of the Algerian war is intended to bring to a close the lingering chapter of the natives who served him in his colonial adventure and were then abandoned to their fate. The president wants their rehabilitation to be complete, so that "their honour will be engraved on the marble of national memory", after acknowledging that France failed in its duty to protect the Harkis, their wives and children.

Many other chapters remain to be resolved in bilateral Franco-Algerian relations, including determining France's responsibilities for the nuclear tests conducted in the Algerian desert. He will surely finish addressing them in his second term, to which he undoubtedly aspires. To this end, one can bet that Macron will attend the commemoration on 17 October of the huge demonstration by Algerians in Paris on the same date in 1961, which was violently repressed by the French police. Nor will he shirk the celebrations on 18 March for the 60th anniversary of the Eivan Accords, which definitively enshrined Algeria's independence and the definitive departure of the French military and settlers from the giant North African country.