What’s in an apology?

Benabdullah and Villalon in Africa is a country:

MaxresdefaultIn a recent interview on a private Algerian TV news station, French presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron called France’s colonial history an act of barbarism and a crime against humanity; if elected head of state, he would issue an official apology to all victims of colonialism. With this condemnation and promise, coming already more than half a century after the independence movements that marked the end of the old colonial project, Macron, the leader and founder of the progressive En Marche! party and current front-runner in what has proven a turbulent race, has rekindled a divisive debate in France ahead of the first round of voting on April 23.

… Of course, this is not to discount the symbolism of an apology. To be sure, France is not the only country to glaze over its brutal colonial past; if Macron were to be elected and issue an official apology to France’s former colonies, it could set a precedent for other European states and pave the way for reparations. Such an apology might also serve to humble those who are quick to promote the French self-image of liberté, égalité, fraternité, doubtless a noble credo, but one that is often mobilized along the fault lines of the old colonial imagination to distinguish a just France from its corrupt and unstable former colonies. However, in an already divisive political climate exacerbated by Islamophobia, in light of the recent attacks in France, such an apology could also lead to further entrenchment into progressive and nationalist camps. Nevertheless, for French citizens of Algerian or other African descent, an admission of the destructive nature of colonialism would amount to an initial recognition by the French state of the phenomenon that underpins the structural racism they encounter in their daily lives. However, Macron’s comments also invite former French colonies to consider their own national memories. In Algeria especially, there is a certain paradox in the fact that national identity has been so strongly constructed in opposition to the colonial power that delineated it as a coherent territory. In some sense, Algeria, the “country of a million martyrs,” has depended on the image of a colonial France in order to create a unified national memory across its vast geographic and cultural expanse; this is especially true of the FLN, whose legitimacy is bound up in the struggle for independence against the French. Of course, an apology would be welcomed by the Algerian government, but an unresolved debate with France on the effects of French colonialism has been able to serve as an end in itself.

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