[an error occurred while processing this directive]
BBC News
watch One-Minute World News
Last Updated: Monday, 16 May, 2005, 17:11 GMT 18:11 UK
Colonial abuses haunt France
By Hugh Schofield

French troops in Algiers, 1962
The French occupation formally ended in 1962
The commemoration of a wartime massacre in Algeria and a new law on how to teach colonial history have reopened wounds from France's recent past.

Despite a gradual easing of suspicions between Paris and Algiers in recent years, all the old bitterness between the two countries resurfaced on the 60th anniversary of one of the most notorious episodes of France's 130-year rule.

In May 1945 French soldiers killed thousands of Algerians around the eastern town of Setif, after celebrations to mark the defeat of Nazi Germany turned into pro-independence protests.

The official Algerian version is that 45,000 people died, though French historians say the number was between 15,000 and 20,000.

Algerian 'tragedy'

For the first time ever this year, the French ambassador to Algeria, Hubert Colin de Verdiere, went to the scene to pay homage to the victims - describing the massacres as an "inexcusable tragedy."

The gesture was welcomed in Algeria, but subsequent remarks by politicians including President Abdelaziz Bouteflika showed how raw the memories still were.

Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika
The Algerian people are still waiting for ... the French ambassador's declarations to be followed by a more convincing gesture
President Bouteflika
Mr Bouteflika said Algeria had "never ceased waiting for an admission from France of all the acts committed during the colonial period and the war of liberation."

And he shocked many in France when he drew a direct comparison between the burning of thousands of Algerian bodies after the massacres with "the ovens of the Nazis."

Another senior offical - Mohamed El Korso, president of the May 1945 Foundation - said that French "repentance is seen by the Algerian people as a sine qua non before any Franco-Algerian friendship treaty can be concluded."

The two governments were hoping to agree on a treaty later this year.

"French and international public opinion must know that France committed a real act of genocide in May 1945," he said.

History revisited

Algerian feeling was aggravated by reports of a new law voted through the French parliament in February, which many fear will hold up the task of confronting the colonial legacy.

Algerian police checkpoint
An Islamist revolt brought more violence to independent Algeria
In an otherwise innocuous text bearing on the treatment of "pieds noirs" and "harkis" - returned expatriates and Algerians who remained loyal to France - Article Four has given rise to accusations that French schoolchildren are to get a sanitised version of the experience in Algeria and elsewhere.

"School programmes are to recognise in particular the positive role of the French presence overseas, especially in North Africa, and give an eminent place ... to the sacrifices of fighters for the French army raised in these territories," the law reads.

A petition has been signed by hundreds of French historians demanding an abrogation of the text, claiming that it "imposes an official lie about the crimes, about the massacres which sometimes went as far as genocide, about the slavery, about the racism that has been inherited from this past."

It is not just colonial Algeria that many fear could be misrepresented, but French rule across Africa.

Sub-Saharan wounds

Cameroon, Senegal and Madagascar experienced periods of harsh repression in the 1940s, little of which is taught in French schools today.

In 1947, for example, French troops massacred thousands of people in Madagascar in order to quell a rebellion.

"There is a real risk that we will end up hiding the crimes and the racism that are inherent in the fact of colonialism," said Claude Liauzu, a historian of France's colonial past at the University of Paris.

"That kind of denial will encourage those who want to reactivate the old nationalist reflexes - but also those at the other end of the spectrum, who want to shut themselves off in a minority and nurture their sense of oppression. Each is as dangerous as the other."

'Gestures needed'

Benjamin Stora, a leading specialist on Algeria, said that more than 40 years after it left its former colony France still had to face up honestly to its role there.

"France has never taken on its colonial history. It is a big difference with the Anglo-Saxon countries, where post-colonial studies are now in all the universities. We are phenomenally behind the times."

According to Mr Stora, it is wrong to claim there is ignorance of what happened - historical research has been thorough and fair - but too little of it is transmitted into the wider public consciousness.

The result is that ideology - instead of an open acknowledgement of the past - too often dominates the dialogue between France and Algeria, as it has done over the Setif massacres.

"Repentance is not what matters. What matters is making the right gestures, dedicating places of memory, reconciliation - and not perpetually replaying the past," he said.

France wants Algerian debt swap
07 Jun 04 |  Business
Timeline: France
23 May 04 |  Country profiles
Country profile: Algeria
13 Jul 04 |  Country profiles

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites


News Front Page | Africa | Americas | Asia-Pacific | Europe | Middle East | South Asia
UK | Business | Entertainment | Science/Nature | Technology | Health
Have Your Say | In Pictures | Week at a Glance | Country Profiles | In Depth | Programmes
Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific