France 2022: Stumbling blocks in collective memory

Albrecht Sonntag |

The first and so far only international football match between France and Algeria took place twenty years ago, on 6 October 2001. The starting point had been the sustained euphoria around the multiethnic character of Les Bleus, the French national team, winners of the 1998 World Cup and 2000 European Championship, and their emblematic leader Zinedine Zidane, born in Marseille to Algerian immigrants. What had been imagined was a “friendly” match in the best sense of the word, initially to be hosted in Algiers but finally, for lack of approval by the local authorities, shifted to the “Stade de France”, which, as it turned out, did not deserve its name on that day.

The good intentions for a kind of popular party of reconciliation paved the way to a fiasco: the match had to be interrupted, then abandoned, after 76 minutes, because of a spontaneous pitch invasion by a large number of mostly very young Algerian supporters. The twentieth anniversary of this resounding flop produced a good deal of retrospective questioning: what exactly had happened, in what order, and what were the motivations behind it?

What the event definitely exposed was the fragility of the famous “black-blanc-beur” slogan with which Les Bleus were celebrated as a symbol of harmonious multiculturality, but which, rather than depict a reality in the making, expressed a good deal of wishful thinking (however sincere the wishing). Only a few months later, Jean-Marie Le Pen won his place in the second round of the presidential election.

The atmosphere in the stadium on that day was already boiling over before the kick-off. As early as the warm-up of the two teams, the crowd – with the notable exception of PM Lionel Jospin and a significant number of his ministers – showed a high degree of aggressiveness towards the French team, with a lot of invectives targeted at Zinedine Zidane. The national anthem was drowned by loud boos and whistles – quite an éclat!

During the match, emotions first seemed to cool down somewhat. Needless to say, the reigning world and European champions were superior in all aspects of the game, but when shortly before half-time, led by 3-0, Algeria managed to score a “goal of honour”, the atmosphere even appeared to become positive.

A quarter of an hour before the final whistle, a female spectator carrying an Algerian flag suddenly succeeded in invading the pitch and running across it. In no time she was followed by hundreds of young fans, there was no way this match could be resumed and brought to its end. The desperate attempts by the communist sports minister, Marie-George Buffet, to bring back some calm via the loudspeakers turned out to be, not unexpectedly, rather counter-productive.

When over the following days, this surrealistic event was the object of a tentative reappraisal and interpretation, it became clear that none of the pitch invaders was able to put down in words any kind of collective demand or provide any coherent idea behind their spontaneous action. The impression that consolidated was a deep-seated confusion of sentiments, bewilderment rather than grief, a helpless expression of non-integration in a society that may not even be fundamentally racist or cynical, but that has little to no understanding for multiple cultural identities. The awkwardness of it all came across as a silent, but all the more resounding, accusation directed at a nation that had never honestly and outspokenly tried to come to terms with its colonial past and the disgraceful stains and painful legacies it left.

Football is a brilliant and reliable producer of popular culture anniversaries. Just like the great triumphs of the national team, the strange friendly of 6 October 2001, never finished, never repeated, has been engraved in collective memory. It’s “only a football match”, of course. But one whose twentieth anniversary finds its place within a whole series of post-colonial sites of memory, all possessing a non-negligible potential of social division. Especially over the long months of a presidential campaign.

A lasting stain

France loves commemorations. There seems to be not a single week in the calendar without an anniversary. Historian Pierre Nora, who back in the 1980’s coined the highly successful concept of “sites of memory(“lieux de memoire”, in English also often referred to as “realms” of memory) went so far as to diagnose a widespread “commemorative bulimia” among his compatriots.

An understandable pathology. In a destabilised, increasingly fragmented society that seems to ache for identity-building narratives, both government and media permanently refer to the past. Many of the commemorations are consensual, such as the powerful humanism of Mitterrand’s minister of justice Robert Badinter, rightly celebrated forty years after the abolition of the death penalty, or the eloquent poetic anarchy of Georges Brassens, the monument of the French chanson, whose hundredth birthday triggered numerous tributes. Not to forget the forty years of the TGV!

But the consensus ends when the anniversaries refer to the legacy of French colonial history.

“Here, Algerians are drowned.” The site of the massacre of 16 October 1961.

While the famous football match described above could be shrugged off as a rather harmless souvenir that did certainly not warrant any official governmental statement, the official remembrance of the massacre of 16 October 1961 was a excruciating reminder of one of the most disgraceful stains on the history of the Fifth Republic. On that day, a peaceful demonstration of Algerian workers against a discriminating curfew was quelled by the police with unfathomable brutality. A state crime that was covered up for decades. Historical inquiry was impeded, the exact number of victims – probably around 120 – was never definitely determined.

Finding an appropriate way to commemorate such a day of national shame is a dangerous balancing act for a head of state. Even more so when such a remembrance day occurs in an already rhetorically overheated context. On the one hand, there was the accelerating election campaign, dominated by the reactionary, identity-obsessed discourse of the nationalist-populist movements chaired by Le Pen and Zemmour. On the other hand, there was the escalation of diplomatic tensions between France and Algeria, where an increasingly delegitimated government is only too keen on seizing the sensitive issue of colonial history. Indignation against the French bogeyman is a great way to distract from one’s own incompetence.

Emmanuel Macron commemorates a day of shame. (Photo: Elysée).

Just a few days before commemorating the massacre of 16 October, in a talk with young French citizens of Algerian origin, Emmanuel Macron had heavily criticised the Algerian elite for drawing cynically on a kind of “memorial annuity” with the aim to prevent any appeasement or reconciliation. The commemoration act itself, at the bridge over the Seine where so many of the workers had been drowned in 1961, was, however, calm and respectful, and his official written statement sounded sincere and appropriate.

Still, he was heavily criticised from all sides. Not that he would mind: he could hardly be surprised by the reactions. For some, condemning these “crimes” as “unforgivable” is not enough, far from asking for forgiveness. For others, the explicit recognition of the State’s historical responsibility is already an unacceptable public display of penitence. Note that over the last years, right-wing politicians have managed to poison the formerly honourable term “repentance” with sneeringly spiteful connotation.

An arduous reconciliation

As a matter of fact, Emmanuel Macron reaps the fruit of his predecessors’ procrastination. None of them went beyond very prudent, very punctual statements on the Franco-Algerian past. By their insistence on not addressing the real issue, they gave implicit confirmation to all those who in their knee-jerk patriotism react with half-fake, half-sincere indignation to any attempt at a critical reassessment of colonialism. Already in 2017, Macron’s qualification of colonialism (on site in Algeria) as a “crime against humanity” had earned him sharp rebukes. His young age, for sure, did not spare him from bitter criticism.

This being said, he was certainly not wrong. And while France as a whole is still very slow and reluctant in coming to terms with the not-so-glorious parts of its past, it would be unjust to claim that Macron avoids the topic. Quite the opposite is true: he has addressed the issues of both the “harkis” and the “pieds noirs” in a more appropriate tone and style, and with more empathy than any of his predecessors.

A “Harki” camp in the 1960s.

The “harkis” are Algerians who were against independence and for their largest part sided with the French army in support troops. Roughly 60,000 of them managed to escape to France in 1962, and the manner in which they were gathered and treated by the French state in disgracefully rudimentary reception camps, will forever remain a stain on the shining armour of Charles de Gaulle.

Of course, Macron’s mortified apologies on behalf of the French nation come far too late, after decades of second-class citizenship. As late as the solidarity fund, which can hardly compensate for anything after sixty years. But symbolic rehabilitation also counts, and the community gave him the credit of sincerity.

The “pieds noirs” are the French citizens who had to leave Algeria following independence, carrying with them an emotional wound that never healed. There is no way they could ever accept to be considered the accomplices of a “crime against humanity” (Macron lost quite a few votes with this quote!). But the President managed, at an event dedicated to their collective experience at the Elysée in January, to find words that that acknowledged their suffering without downplaying the one they caused indirectly, even if they are not personally guilty of individual crimes.

And on 19 March, Macron succeeded – with the help of the Russian war in Ukraine that monopolised headlines – in steering clear of the danger lurking in the commemoration of the sixtieth anniversary of the Evian Accords, which put a formal end to almost eight years of war in Algeria. Insisting again on his determination to “hold out his hand” and reconcile the conflicting memories, he told his audience, a crowd of 200, composed by representatives of all the different groups involved in the memorial muddle, “there will be inevitably moments of irritation, but we’ll get there.”

The envisaged reconciliation will be an arduous task. If it is to succeed, it will be based on the recommendations of the report for a joint memorial culture with Algeria, which Macron commissioned to the renowned historian Benjamin Stora, widely recognised as an authority on the Algerian war and its legacy. The report of 160 pages was delivered in January 2021; it bears the title “Questions of memory on colonisation and the Algerian war”. It suggests, among other things, the establishment or “Commission of truth and memory”, archival work on individual destinies, as well as the creation, in reference to the French-German post-war success story, of a bilateral youth office.

Just how much Macron is aware of the pitfalls on his way, is demonstrated by his decision to ignore one of the propositions advocated by Benjamin Stora, and which consisted in transferring to the Panthéon the remains of the late Gisèle Halimi, a well-known lawyer, human rights activist, and feminist of North African origin. But the fact that she also had, in a spectacular trial, defended the Algerian independence fighter (or “terrorist”, according to your interpretation of history) Djamila Boupacha, would no doubt raise an unpleasant polemic that would be detrimental to the initial objective. Instead, Macron will merely pay tribute to Gisèle Halimi in the majestic courtyard of the Hôtel des Invalides.

The Pantheonization – one of these tools in the service of presidents desperate to create rare moments of national cohesion – was reserved to the more glamourous Josephine Baker, the American-born world war hero who had made it from cabaret dancer to resistance fighter and went on to become, an embodiment of a multicultural and universalist humanism. An incredible biography that would well be worth a Netflix series. Josephine Baker was the sixth woman that the nation honours “with gratitude”, as the fries above the Pantheon’s entrance hall recalls. And the first lady of colour, yet another symbol. And a much less divisive one than anything related to Algeria.

A prudent strategy

A neutral observer must grant Emmanuel Macron an above-average capacity of avoiding the numerous commemorative stumbling stones that French presidents find on their way. His recognition of the national history’s ambiguities and grey zones is not only a step in the right direction, but also an opportunity to distinguish himself very sharply, as representative of a forward-looking nation, from those who are mentally stuck in an outdated narrative of glory and grandeur.

Not a bad strategy, really: in the urbane, multicultural France of the century’s third decade, the traditional patriotic posture no longer strikes a chord with more than a defensive minority. The epoch when the Chirac government intended to decree by law that the teaching programmes in secondary education “highlight the positive role of the French colonial presence, especially in North Africa”, belongs to the past (whatever Zemmour and Le Pen may pretend). Similarly, the overt attempts to rehabilitate colonialism with which Nicolas Sarkozy spiced up several speeches before and after his election in 2007, would raise eyebrows with a majority of citizens nowadays.

Bust of Colbert sold in Versailles. Price tag: 3400 €.

This is because, slowly but surely, postcolonial perspectives are gaining ground in France. To be sure, the universalist ideals of the French Republic are not compatible with the militant communitarianism of the woke movement or American-style cancel culture. Macron himself has made it very clear that he does not consider toppling statues of Colbert for his infamous “code noir”, which regulated slavery in the colonies of the 17th century. But in the wake of #BlackLivesMatter and repeated police violence that is clearly grounded in racist behaviour patterns, there is a new, audible and most likely irreversible demand to revise certain assumptions of collective memory, especially with regard to colonialism and slavery.

A surprising book

When the France-Algeria friendly was interrupted on that October evening in 2001, he was on the pitch, trying in vain to reason the young supporters running around with Algerian flags. Twenty years later, Lilian Thuram, world and European champion, still les Bleus’ most capped international, has himself become an actor of change, and a spokesperson for French citizens with migration origins. Thuram is the author of a remarkable book named La pensée blanche (White Thinking), published at the end of 2020. Not exactly what you’d expect from a former footballer, but an essay on the French ignorance of the concept of white privilege, intellectually stimulating, with precise references in footnotes, a substantial bibliography, and a rich name index.

Lilian Thuram

To a certain extent, Thuram’s life path since the end of his football career is emblematic for a growing self-awareness within the French population of postcolonial background, poised to ask France some uncomfortable, existential questions in the years to come.

His social engagement as founder of the “Lilian Thuram Foundation for Education against Racism” was already well-known. But only few people had realised just how familiar he had made himself, as an autodidact supported by leading social scientists like Pascal Blanchard or Nicolas Bancel, with post-colonial research.

In a nutshell, La pensée blanche is a pedagogical book for French mainstream society, with the objective to confront it, in mild manners but very firmly, with its own ignorance and half-truths. Thuram wants his white readers to understand to what extent their own identity is anchored in an ideological construct that divides the world in white and non-white individuals.

The book is strongest, when it shows how an ethnically grounded discourse of legitimisation of social domination and economic exploitation was sustained over a long period of time, in order to make slavery and colonialism appear as something naturally given. Thuram avoids sweeping accusations and generalisations. But he strongly refutes the argument according to which it is unfair to judge historical persons from today’s viewpoint. For each and every tipping point in French history when slavery was justified, reinstated, consolidated, he refers to humanistic, anti-racist voices that were audible but were ignored, for reasons partly economic, partly ideological.

And that’s exactly where French society needs to catch up with the historical truth. Take Jules Ferry (1832-1893) for instance, the saint patron of national education who fought for and implemented compulsory schooling in the Third Republic. The manner in which this celebrity turned colonialism before the National Assembly into a kind of moral obligation for the white race, based on its evident superiority, was already then harshly contradicted by the likes of Georges Clemenceau (1841-1929) and other deputies, unwilling to tolerate this discourse but finally voted down. Claiming that “everybody was a colonialist in these days” is simply a lie.

The Nantes slavery memorial on the banks of the Loire.

What Thuram demands of white French citizens is an overdue introspective questioning. Concerning racism, French mainstream society is notoriously unaware and uneducated. Ignorance on the history of slavery is a good example. What the average French person knows is that Victor Schoelcher imposed the abolition of slavery as early as 1848, quite a few years before the Americans, and that he has well deserved his place in the Pantheon (expressively honoured by Mitterrand on his election day in 1981). Just how much the slave trade enriched the country is unknown. Only recently have some of the cities who built their prosperity on slavery, such as Nantes or Bordeaux, started to raise public awareness and create sites of remembrance (which is of course all to their credit).

Lilian Thuram is mindful of the “learning difficulties” of his potential readers and takes great pains to avoid playing the role of public prosecutor. Nobody, he writes, asks the French to wear sackcloth and ashes. But they should be able to simply listen to the accounts of their black or North African compatriots, without immediately switching to defence mode. It comes as no surprise that he refers several times to the British authors Reni Eddo-Lodge, the author of Why I Am No Longer Talking to White People about Race.

The book also has its weak points, mainly in its third part, where the argument against the universalist claim of “white thought” drifts into a worrying human rights relativism, which would easily find the approval of the Chinese Communist Party.

But that does not change anything to the fact that the questions on the French past and present raised by Lilian Thuram, anticipate a public debate the scope and depth of which France will only start to discover in the coming years.

A coming reckoning

Revising a long-established narrative firmly anchored in collective memory is a painful reckoning. But its an inevitable one for a multicultural society that is the product of a complex and ambiguous history.

Given the truly astounding integration achievement accomplished by French society – despite all the frictions and shortcomings – over 150 years of successive, massive immigration waves coming from a large variety of cultures, one might think there should be enough self-confidence for being able to cast a critical look on the past and its long-term effects on living together in the present. It’s a real pity this well-earned self-confidence does not fit the agenda of some major political actors.

This walk on remembrance lane will not be an easy one. Setbacks and bitterness on all sides are to be expected. But on the way, national commemoration events are slippery stumbling stones. But used with intelligence, empathy and sincerity, they may turn out to be helpful stepping stones. It may well be that the “commemorative bulimia” disease may be part of the therapy.

This is post no. 6 of the ‘France 2022’ series.
The previous ones can be found here.
All ‘France 2017’ posts can be accessed here.

A previous version of this post was published in German
by the Berlin-based think-tank Zentrum Liberale Moderne