Paris, France, Sep 20 – French President Emmanuel Macron on Monday asked “forgiveness” on behalf of his country for abandoning Algerians who fought alongside France in their country’s war of independence.
More than 200,000 Algerians fought with the French army in the war that pitted Algerian independence fighters against their French colonial masters from 1954 to 1962.
At the end of the war — waged on both sides with extreme brutality, including widespread torture — the French government left the loyalist fighters known as Harkis to fend for themselves, despite earlier promises that it would look after them.
Trapped in Algeria, many were massacred as the country’s new masters took brutal revenge.
Thousands of others who escaped to France were interned in camps, often with their families, in degrading and traumatising conditions.
“I want to express our gratitude to the fighters,” Macron said at a ceremony at the Elysee Palace attended by around 300 people, mostly surviving Harkis and their families.
“I’m asking for forgiveness. We will not forget,” Macron said, adding that France had “failed in its duty towards the Harkis, their wives, their children”.
The centrist president, who has been tackling some of the darker chapters of France’s colonial past, said the government would draft a law on the recognition of the state’s responsibility towards Harkis and the need for “reparation”.
His speech was interrupted several times by hecklers, with one woman in the audience accusing Macron of “making empty promises”.
Previous French presidents had already begun owning up to the betrayal of the Algerian Muslim fighters.
Macron’s predecessor Francois Hollande in 2016 accepted “the responsibilities of French governments in the abandonment of the Harkis”.
The meeting came days before national Harki day, which has been observed since 2003 — especially in southern France where many of the surviving fighters settled after the war.
Their political sympathies often lie with the nationalist right whose leader, Marine Le Pen, is the frontrunner among Macron’s rivals in France’s presidential election next spring.
Authorities have in the past allowed a number of legal procedures to go ahead for the Harkis and their families to claim damages from France.
– ‘Hypocrisy’ –
Ahead of the ceremony, Harki organisations had demanded an official recognition of their treatment to be enshrined in a law by the end of the year.
“We hope that you will be the one to end 60 years of a certain hypocrisy by which the abandoning of the Harkis is recognised in speeches, but not in the law,” they said in an open letter to Macron.
Macron’s initiative comes over a year after he tasked historian Benjamin Stora with assessing how France has dealt with its colonial legacy in Algeria.
The report, submitted in January, made a series of recommendations, including owning up to the murder of a prominent Algerian independence figure and creating a “memory and truth commission”.
Macron has already spoken out on a number of France’s unresolved colonial legacies, including nuclear testing in Polynesia, its role in the Rwandan genocide and war crimes in Algeria.
Before the end of his mandate he is expected to attend ceremonies marking the anniversaries of two key events still weighing on French-Algerian relations.
One is the brutal repression of a demonstration of Algerians on October 17, 1961, by Paris police who beat protesters to death or drowned them in the river Seine, and the other is a signing of the Evian accords on March 18, 1962, which ended the war of independence.