With French elections only months away, the country's past and its treatment of Muslims continues to be a wellspring of controversy.

The leading right-wing French presidential candidate, Valerie Pecresse, has castigated the country's President Emmanuel Macron for admitting that France's brutal colonisation of Algeria resulted in "crimes against humanity".

In an interview on Monday, she added that "in Algeria, there were indeed abuses, there were dark pages in the history of France that were written, but crimes against humanity, this is what we reproach the Nazis and Hitler, and I don't think we can speak of crimes against humanity."

The number of people suspected to have died due to France's occupation is believed to be in the region of between 5-10 million.

France colonised the country for more than 130 years. During that time, torture, mass displacement, and discrimination against the local Arab-Berber Muslim population were regular features of French rule.

A war of independence between 1954-1962 resulted in brutal policies by French authorities to quell the uprising.

Unlike other French colonial holdings, Algeria was unique as it had been integrated into the French republic - albeit with Algerians treated as second-class citizens.

To this day, France's record in Algeria continues to be a source of controversy in France, with the country's establishment believing that its mission in Algeria was ultimately to civilise the natives.

A failure to come to terms with France's colonial past was only further outlined in Pecresse's latest interview when she said, "I do not believe that we need to deconstruct the history of France, I think that all countries need myths, all countries need to be proud of their heroes."

France continues to celebrate military figures that were responsible for some of the worst crimes in Algeria.

The statue of Marshal of France, Thomas Robert Bugeaud, has been described by some as a "butcher in uniform" due to his scorched earth policies in trying to quell rebellions - yet Macron has been unequivocal in stating that no statues will be taken down.

In 2020, as the world was gripped by anti-racism protests against the backdrop of the Black Lives Matter movement, France was still debating whether it should send back the decapitated skulls of Algerian resistance fighters that France still held and displayed as trophies at the National Museum of Natural History.

After years of Algerian pressure, Macron relented and sent the skulls back after more than 190 years.

Macron has taken some steps to acknowledge France's past in Algeria, however, this has often been couched in language that has left Algerians wanting.

The French president has categorically ruled out offering repentance or formally apologising for France's role in the colonisation of Algeria.

In addition, Macron has questioned whether the Algerian nation existed before France's colonial rule and that the country's political establishment had sought to re-write history on the basis of "a hatred of France."

His remarks drew the ire of Algerians, who condemned his remarks. Algerians have come to see France's attempts to come to terms with their past often as half-hearted and insincere.

The cleavages that Algeria's war of independence opened up continue to reverberate in French politics to this day.

While for Algerians, the war they fought was one of liberation, in France, it’s remembered differently. One French historian put it poignantly when he said that the "Algerian war was a French civil war."

For France, the Algerian territory was at the core of what made the country a great empire. The questions that the war raised remain unresolved.

Can French identity tolerate Muslims living within a French republic? The war in Algeria showed that France wasn't willing to share power with those it considered inferior, particularly those following the Muslim faith.

In contemporary French politics, these questions matter and are explosive. The country has one of Europe's largest Muslim populations, with some putting the numbers at more than 4 million. The French state doesn't collect figures officially.

French attempts in recent years to reshape the country's Muslim community have activists in the country claiming it's an attempt at a "colonial management of the Muslim religion by the state," much as the country did when it colonised Algeria.

With French presidential elections only four months away, questions around identity will draw further heated debate, and any politician admitting past mistakes opens the door to discussing France's treatment of its minorities, particularly Muslims.

Source: TRT World