France’s tortured history of non-apologies to Algeria

When it comes to Algeria, it seems that sorry really is the hardest word for the French government to say - as Emmanuel Macron travels to Algiers we take a look at the complicated history behind his trip.

France's tortured history of non-apologies to Algeria
Hundreds of thousands of lives were lost during Algeria's brutal struggle for independence from France. Photo by Ludovic MARIN / AFP

The north African country of Algeria was invaded and colonised by France in 1830 and remained under – often brutal – colonial control until 1962. 

It eventually achieved independence after a brutal war in which French historians say half a million civilians and combatants died — 400,000 of them Algerian — while the Algerian authorities say 1.5 million were killed.

It took France nearly 40 years to officially acknowledge that “the events in North Africa” constituted a war and even 60 years on the subject remains an exceptionally difficult and contentious one in France.

Past presidents

Valéry Giscard d’Estaing was the first French president to visit independent Algeria in April 1975, and his successor François Mitterrand said, during a visit in November 1981, “France and Algeria are capable of getting over the trauma of the past”.

Nicolas Sarkozy admitted during his 2007-2012 presidency that the “colonial system was profoundly unjust”.

President François Hollande called it “brutal” and in 2016 became the first French president to commemorate the end of the war, sparking virulent criticism from his right-wing opponents.

Macron, during his 2017 election campaign, also infuriated the right by calling the colonisation of Algeria “a crime against humanity”.


The first French president born after the war, Macron is undoubtedly the French leader who has come the closest to an apology, although still stopping short of the that crucial ‘sorry”, he has said it is time France “looked our past in the face”.

During his first official visit to Algeria after his election, he said he came as a “friend” and was “ready” to see his country hand back the skulls of Algerian resistance fighters killed in the 1850s, currently held in Paris.

In 2018, Macron acknowledged that Maurice Audin, a mathematician and communist who supported Algeria’s struggle for self-rule, had “died under torture stemming from the system instigated while Algeria was part of France”, and asked Audin’s widow for forgiveness.

In January 2021, historian Benjamin Stora recommended in a report, commissioned by Macron, on the colonial legacy the creation of a “memory and truth commission”.

Macron said he would make “symbolic gestures” to attempt to reconcile the two countries but ruled out a formal state apology.

In March of that year, he acknowledged that  Algerian lawyer Ali Boumendjel was tortured to death by the French army in 1957, which French authorities had long denied.

And in September, he appealed for forgiveness for the “Harkis”, Algerians who fought for the French during the  independence war,  many of whom were later executed or tortured in Algeria and in October he described as “an inexcusable crime” the 1961 massacre of scores of Algerian protesters in Paris by French police.

In December, France announced it would open classified police files from the Algerian war 15 years ahead of schedule.

On January 26th, 2022, Macron also admitted that the shooting of unarmed civilians by French soldiers in Algiers in 1962 was an “unforgivable” act, while also acknowledging a second massacre in Oran the same year.

On February 8th, he became the first French president to pay tribute to nine people who lost their lives in the Charonne metro station in Paris 60 years ago at a peaceful anti-war demonstration that was violently repressed by the police.

His gestures, while frequently condemned for not going far enough, have also drawn fury from the far-right, especially Rassemblement National whose founder Jean-Marie Le Pen served as a paratrooper in the Algerian war.

New tensions

Last October, Algeria recalled its ambassador to Paris for three months after Macron accused Algeria’s “political-military system” of rewriting history and fomenting “hatred towards France” in remarks to descendants of independence fighters.

Macron’s latest visit to Algeria, set for August 25-27, has been billed as a bid to improve the strained ties between Paris and Algiers.

Macron’s desire to fully patch up relations comes as Algeria emerges as a key alternative gas supplier to the European Union following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

European nations are seeking to end their dependence on Russian hydrocarbons, giving Algeria – with its pipelines to Spain and Italy – renewed clout and importance.

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Pope arrives in Marseille for trip shadowed by migrant crisis

Pope Francis arrived in Marseille on Friday for a two-day visit focused on the Mediterranean and migration, bringing to France a message of tolerance amid bitter debate over how Europe manages asylum seekers.

Pope arrives in Marseille for trip shadowed by migrant crisis

Marseille was decked out in the yellow and white colours of the Vatican for the first visit by a pope to France’s second-largest city in 500 years, where 100,000 people are expected to turn out to see the pontiff in his “popemobile” on Saturday.

The 86-year-old is visiting to take part in a meeting of Mediterranean-area Catholic bishops and young people — but his trip comes at a politically sensitive time.

The pontiff disembarked at Marseille airport from his plane away from the view of cameras. He was then wheeled in a wheelchair towards Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne, who was waiting on the airport tarmac to greet him, an AFP correspondent said.

He then stood up from his wheelchair to acknowledge the welcome of a military band.

A surge in migrant boats arriving from North Africa on the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa last week trigged outrage in Italy and a heated debate across Europe over how to share responsibility for the numbers.

Marseille is a historic gateway for immigrants and also home to some of the poorest neighbourhoods in Europe, many of which are plagued by drug trafficking.

The desperate conditions that cause many people to leave their homes for a new life, and the risks they take to do so, have been a key theme during Francis’s decade as head of the Catholic Church.

Speaking at the Vatican on Sunday, he noted that migration “represents a challenge that is not easy… but which must be faced together”.

He emphasised the need for “fraternity, putting human dignity and real people, especially those most in need, in first place”.

Ahead of what will be his 44th overseas trip, Francis acknowledged this month that papal voyages were not as easy as they used to be.

He underwent hernia surgery in June, less than two years after having colon surgery, and routinely uses a wheelchair because of a troublesome knee.

Meeting pilgrims

Despite the decline in France of Catholicism, the once dominant faith, the pope’s visit has sparked huge enthusiasm, with almost 60,000 people expected at a mass on Saturday afternoon.

“Habemus papam” headlined regional newspaper La Provence, using the famous Latin phrase meaning “We have a pope!” used  on the election of a pontiff.

For Joseph Achji, a 25-year-old Syrian Christian originally from Aleppo, the pope’s visit is a “chance of a lifetime”.

He will head to the Basilica of Notre-Dame de la Garde, a symbolic monument overlooking the city, for a prayer with local clergy on Friday afternoon.

That will be followed by a moment of meditation with representatives of other religions at a memorial to sailors and migrants lost at sea.

The United Nations estimates that more than 28,000 migrants who have tried to cross the Mediterranean since 2014 have gone missing.

After 8,500 migrants landed on Lampedusa in three days earlier this month, the European Union promised more help for Rome.

But France, amid wrangling over a draft law governing migrant arrivals there, said it would not accept anyone from the island.

“We are expecting very strong words” from the pope, said Francois Thomas, head of Marseille-based SOS Mediterranee, which operates a migrant rescue boat in the sea.

“It is our humanity that is sinking if Europe does not do something.”

Mass with Macron

On Saturday morning, Francis will take part in the closing session of the “Mediterranean Meetings” event.

As well as migration, it will cover issues such as economic inequality and climate change — also themes close to the pope’s heart.

On Saturday afternoon, Francis will lead a mass at the Velodrome stadium, with French President Emmanuel Macron among those due to attend.

Macron’s attendance has sparked controversy among left-wing politicians in the officially secular country.

Some right-wing politicians have criticised the pope’s stance on migrants — but Marseille mayor Benoit Payan said the pontiff “has a universal message… of peace”.

Francky Domingo, who runs a migrant association in Marseille, said he hoped the visit would “give back a little hope” and “ease tensions at the political level”.

“Marseille is a cosmopolitan city, multicultural, multi-faith,” he told AFP, but faces “enormous difficulties”.