Tensions regarding France’s colonial past resonate today as calls grow to re-examine the statues of colonisers in public spaces.
After years of Algerian campaigning, French President Emmanual Macron has relented to pressure to send back the decapitated skulls of Algerian resistance fighters that France still held and displayed as trophies at the National Museum of Natural History. The decision coincided with the Algerian independence day.
The macabre display of those who had fought French colonial rule after almost 190 years is one of many sources of tension between the two countries as France reluctantly comes to terms with its colonial legacy.
Within France, and against the backdrop of the Black Lives Matter movement, there is also an increasing desire amongst French citizens of immigrant backgrounds to discuss the role of statues that promote colonial-era figures.
A 2019 article'Colonial statues and their afterlives' by Professor Zeynep Celik at the History Department at Columbia University addresses this question.
Looking at one of the earliest French colonial statues in Algeria, of Ferdinand Philippe d'Orleans, Celik described it as "an art form totally foreign to local norms – and entirely disrespectful of them. The proximity and relationship between the statue and the mosque conveyed a powerful message about the colonial presence in Algeria".
The statue of Ferdinand Philippe was one of the earliest commemorations of France’s conquest of Algeria and the beginning of an occupation that would last 132 years.
After Algeria’s liberation, it was sent back to France, where it was erected for public display in the 1980s in the town of Neuilly.
“France has struggled hard to come to terms with its Algerian past but has not done a great job,” Celik told TRT World.
“Things have changed recently a bit, although, as I show in my article, colonial figures are revered everywhere, with statues recently erected in various parts of the country. I give examples of those in the article. I did not read any challenges to colonial statues,” added Celik.
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.
Whereas supporters have made the argument that Bugeaud’s fondness for developing agriculture in occupied Algeria should be lauded even if that benefit had accrued to France.
Facebook groups have been set up to campaign against the “statue of shame” which was restored and publicly placed on display in the French region of Dordogne in 1999 to celebrate the country’s military heritage.
Such overt and unapologetic celebrations of conquering military figures have made some wonder whether France is serious about tackling its colonial history.
In a recent speech, Macron vowed to stand against racism while triumphantly stating that “the republic will not erase any trace, or any name, from its history … it will not take down any statue.”
“French society as a whole, frankly, does not care, notably the young generation about the terrible colonial past of their country,” says Abdennour Toumi from Paris speaking to TRT World.
Toumi who is also a researcher for the Centre of Middle East Studies in Turkey says that the death of George Floyd in the US and the unresolved death of Adama Traore, a Malian-French man who died in France at the hand of the police due to suffocation in 2016, has once again reignited the need for “for reparation and recognition of France’s shameful history”.
France has struggled to deal with issues of race and identity in particular because it propagates the myth that it’s a colour blind society with a strong sense of universalism.
Immigrants and the children of immigrants are discouraged from having hyphenated identities and instead strongly pressured to identify with the French nation above all else unquestionably.
In practice, however, French society has a less-than-colour-blind attitude to immigrants.
“[France’s] omission of ‘race’ from their vernacular ... not only strips people of colour and formerly colonised populations from literally describing their particular forms of oppression, and historical traumas, but that it also still assumes the right to bestow the language upon them,” says Malia Bouattia, a British-Algerian activist and writer speaking to TRT World.
The French government is not allowed to collect information on the race and religion of its citizens.
In 2018 the National Assembly voted to remove the word ‘race’ from the constitution which had been added in 1946 to affirm ‘equality’ in the aftermath of the country’s collaboration with Nazi Germany.
President Macron in the past has called for “neither denial nor repentance” for France’s colonial history partly in fear of alienating right-wing constituents.
Nabila Ramdani, a French-Algerian journalist, believes that despite some efforts in recent times to come to terms with colonialism, “The truth is that millions of Algerians – those living in Algeria, as well as French-Algerian communities in France – remain aggrieved by the lack of official recognition of the crimes carried out against their forebears.”
In the Algerian war of independence, more than 1.5 million Algerians were killed, and double that number were displaced, finally culminating in Algerian independence on July 5, 1962.
The legacy of the Algerian war still resonates deeply with a strong undercurrent of French society.
In the 2017 presidential elections, far-right candidate Marie Le Pen took more than 33 percent of the vote. The party she leads then called the National Front and later rebranded as the National Rally has its ideological roots in opposing the decision to allow Algeria to secede.
Nostalgia and notions of lost colonial grandeur, for some, still colours France’s political inclinations when it projects itself on the international stage. Internally, discussions regarding colonialism cannot be separated from contemporary discrimination and racism that children of immigrants experience in France.
“Surely it is time for him [Macron] to finally officially acknowledge his country’s genocide in Algeria, to commemorate the nation’s ordeal and to publicly announce: ‘never again’ and ‘never forget.’ It is not too late,” says Ramdani.