France’s Colonial Hangover: Apologizing Abroad, Ignoring Injustice at Home

French President François Hollande took strides to heal wounds between France and Algeria, but his recognition of "unjust" colonial history overlooks continued prejudice Algerian descendents still face in France.

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BERTRAND LANGLOIS / AFP / Getty Images

French President François Hollande delivers a speech at a university in Tlemcen on the last day of his two-day official visit to Algeria, on Dec. 20, 2012

The recent visit of French President François Hollande to Algeria received praise for addressing the painful historical wounds that continue plaguing relations between the two countries. In doing so, Hollande acknowledged the “brutal and unjust” manner in which France treated its former Algerian colony — a sober recognition that pointedly stopped short of the full apology officials in Algiers have long demanded. Still, coming a full 50 years after Algeria won its independence with a long and gruesome war, Hollande’s words drew a thundering ovation from the Algerian parliament during his Dec. 20 address.

“Over 132 years, Algeria was subjected to a profoundly unjust and brutal system,” Hollande said during his two-day visit. “This system has a name: it is colonialism, and I recognize the suffering that colonialism inflicted on the Algerian people.”

(MORE: Algeria’s Ghosts: France Acknowledges a 1961 Police Massacre)

But despite the praise — and protest — Hollande’s comments generated on both sides of the Mediterranean, he failed to touch on two terrible, living consequences of France’s legacy in Algeria. First among those is the historical background in which the continuing discrimination and ghettoization of millions of French Arabs are rooted — much like the increasingly open expression of Islamophobia within French society. Second is his failure to acknowledge the deeply corrupt, brutal and military-supported Algerian power structure that has dominated the country since independence — one that Paris has preferred to placate and patronize, even as it presses for democracy elsewhere.

“France wants liberty in Syria, [and] hails Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt being rid of their dictators, but Hollande didn’t say a word condemning Algerian suppression,” wrote François Sergent in the Dec. 21 editorial of French daily Libération. “[It’s] a repressive system imposed by omnipresent military security, and a caste made wealthy from oil sales the people haven’t seen a dinar of. France wants democracy everywhere, but not in Algeria.”

(MORE: Algeria Rescinds Emergency Powers — but Isn’t Bending to Popular Unrest)

That tormented, contradictory and at times darkly neurotic relationship is anything but new. Algeria was made into an integral department of France, much like Corsica, Martinique and Alsace — but with several huge differences. Though Christian and Jewish residents of Algeria were granted French citizenship starting 1871, indigenous Muslims — the vast majority of Algeria’s population — were not. And while Muslims were accorded the right to vote in 1944, gerrymandering of districts always left European-origin colonists with commanding majorities. Algeria’s Muslims similarly faced second-class or worse treatment in employment, civic and legal matters.

It was within that unfair and often abusive setting that the 1954–62 struggle for independence was fought — a war that involved mass military deployment, and civilian slaughter, torture and terrorism by both sides. Depending on sources consulted, between 240,000 and 1 million Algerians died in that conflict, and an additional 28,000 French soldiers were killed. As the victory of Algerian nationalists loomed, nearly 1 million people of European origin fled Algeria — over two-thirds to France, where many of the so-called pied noirs found themselves scorned as rubes or racist colonists by mainlanders. Thousands of indigenous Algerian harkis who had fought for France made a similar journey, most ending up confined to wretched camps by French authorities who clearly wanted nothing of them. Many of the people involved in those contrasting forces are still alive and resentful today.

“Too many vivid memories and entrenched interests still exist on all sides for Hollande to have made a truly historic break with the past,” says Karim Bitar, an Arab-world expert for the Institute of International and Strategic Relations in Paris. “Instead, he opened the door for real postcolonial examination and action in a decade or so when many current actors are no longer around — especially in the Algerian regime.”

(MORE: Sarkozy Confronted by Algerian Anger)

Until then, relations between Paris and Algiers will remain stiff and strained — undercut by enduring feelings of guilt, betrayal, nostalgia and cynicism. But even as Hollande pledged measures in Algiers to help “build a new page in our history together,” many critics wonder what he will now propose to address another unjust and brutal consequence of the 1962 Franco-Algerian split in the heart of French society: France’s prejudice of its large Arab population.

French law prohibits statistical or demographic data to be collected on race, ethnicity or religion, but diverse information offers some clues about French demography — and Algeria’s significant impact on it. The most recent official figures showed around 3.6 million foreigners legally residing in France (or about 5% of a total 62.4 million population). The largest number of those arrivals hails from Algeria and Morocco — a virtual constant over the past 65 years. Indeed, given recent and historical immigration trends, it’s not illogical to assume North African Arabs constitute the largest non-European ethnic category in France today — those of Algerian descent being the largest subset of that group. Islam is now also the second largest religion with an estimated 5 million to 6 million adherents — a rise fueled in large part by Arab immigrants giving birth to millions of French-citizen children.

Given that presumed status as the nation’s largest visible minority, it’s probably not surprising Arabs also complain of suffering the worst of French prejudice. Considerable anecdotal evidence — including undercover testing by antiracism groups — suggests anti-Arab bias remains a negative factor in higher-education selection, hiring decisions and among prospective landlords. A recent study by Stanford University researchers also appears to confirm that notion, with results indicating Muslims are 2.5 times more likely to suffer job discrimination in France than other people.

(MORE: France’s Crusade Against Faith)

France has also seen a surge of Islamophobic expression as some conservative politicians have sought to seduce extreme-right voters of Marine Le Pen by borrowing her Muslim-baiting language. Whether that’s come through conservative-sponsored debate on national identity or the ponderous overkill of the 2010 law banning full-body Islamic veils in public, a garb that fewer than 2,000 women in France are thought to wear, many French Muslims say any pretext now works to point a stigmatizing finger their way.

(MORE: Fact-Checking: Sarkozy’s Campaign for the French Anti-Muslim Vote)

That’s why even as many Algerians applauded Hollande’s further steps in recognizing France’s colonial abuses in Algeria, some French critics urge the President to start looking at injustice far closer to home. French journalist Nabila Ramdani describes the irony of watching Hollande mend fences with a discredited and corrupt Algerian leadership but doing little to correct the second-class treatment she and other French citizens of Algerian descent receive every day.

Recognizing the mistakes of a nation’s colonial past takes courage, Ramdani suggests, but making deep social changes to stop repeating them clearly requires even more.

MORE: The Problem of Clichy: After 2005 Riots, France’s Suburbs Are Still Miserable

21 comments
MINORANU
MINORANU

@Hideo_Ogura 議会で拍手喝采を浴びたとありますね。日本語の記事はどういう意図でこうなったんだろ

VERDURIN
VERDURIN

This is not to read this kind of old fashioned and conformist literature that I subscribe to Time in Paris. A summary of all the clichés. 

mrbomb13
mrbomb13

Nice job of putting your overt, hyper-political correctness on display, Time Magazine.  I counted no fewer than 5 instances of the term "Islamophobic" being utilized.

But, of course, we in the 21st century cannot take a critical view of Islam without being labeled as racists or bigots.  People in France cannot be critical of their growing Muslim minority without having the spineless media lamely castigating them as 'Islamophobes.'

I also noticed how you're still re-opening the pages in the history book devoted to bashing European colonialism.  Well, guess what?  It happened - get over it!  The nations of Europe have admitted that such colonialism did result in adverse treatment of the colonized; not one of them (besides the Holocaust deniers) would deny that.   Why can't you get over it already?

ZuKabby
ZuKabby

@sherbir @time @timeworld It always had a problem and the hangover persists. See their attitude in India.

firdauschris
firdauschris

@warismalaya @TIMEWorld Hmmm, progression & transformation? LOL ☺

Jasper181John
Jasper181John

@TIME @TIMEWorld its been doing it for years

stickler800
stickler800

@TIME @TIMEWorld, i think France is being 2 faced about colonialism all colonial powers want to bury oppressive aspects of their rule

BrindusaB1
BrindusaB1

@TIME @TIMEWorld France was always one of the most hypochrite/arrogant countries:nothing has/will ever change

wail7
wail7

@mrbomb13 no, we're not getting over it, the way we're living now is all a result of the brutal colonization, it has taken over 130 years of development from us, which results in our countries being relatively underdeveloped. We want reparations  not just getting over it, that of course only benefits you. The Jews got reparations, now they practically rule the all the markets. Are we just supposed to forget about everything and listen to you talking garbage about us? That you can forget!

Sherbir
Sherbir

@ZuKabby @time @timeworld reminiscing about a glorious past or NOT

warismalaya
warismalaya

@firdauschris @timeworld More like a socialist who feels he has to prove how far left he will go...

mrbomb13
mrbomb13

@wail7 @mrbomb13 

First, thanks for your reply.  A couple of comments:

1) The "Jews" as a group were never colonized.  Instead, the Jewish people were brutalized during the Holocaust, and then given land following the end of World War II in 1945.  The land given was to them was once theirs.  

2) Following the end of colonization, France ceded all of its colonial territory back to the original inhabitants.  Following that turn-over, France left it to the inhabitants to forge their own destiny, as the French did not want to be viewed as controlling or domineering in the region any longer.

3) Contrary to your statement, the Jews do not "practically rule all the markets."  The only reason why Israel is able to 'flex its muscle' is because 1) it's backed by the US and 2) no one wants another Holocaust to occur again (the memory of it is still alive and well).  On the other hand, there have been successful Jews who have risen to prominent positions in society.  However, do not let that minority speak for the majority of Jews; such would be logically fallacious.

4) Please re-read my comment.  No where in it did I say that we should "forget" about colonialism.  If you believed that I implied it, than I'm sorry, but you were mistaken.  I just think that it does no good to keep "scratching open the scab to start the bleeding anew."  Nations must learn to forgive each other for past wrongs, and move on.  If forgiveness never happened, we would have never helped (formerly Nazi) Germany and (formerly Imperial) Japan re-build following World War II.  

5) Additionally, no where in my comment did I "talk garbage" about you or your country.  In fact, I don't even know where you're from, or where you live (and I do not presume to know either).  You are drawing unfounded conclusions from my writing, and I would kindly advise you to reconsider your position in light of that fact.

firdauschris
firdauschris

@warismalaya @timeworld I like :) LMFAO, I was just being modest + courteous + polite ☺

RedScareBot
RedScareBot

In Soviet Russia… RT @warismalaya: @firdauschris @timeworld More like a socialist who feels he has to prove how far left he will go...