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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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.

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