“A huge and irrepressible pain that is impossible to fill”

Emmanuel Macron on Monday “asked for forgiveness” from the harkis on behalf of France and announced a bill of “recognition and reparation” for veterans alongside the French army during the Algerian war. For the historian Gilles Manceron, who believes that the harkis have been “deceived”, this new step is necessary, even if there is still a lot to do.

The government “will carry before the end of the year a project aimed at inscribing in the marble of our laws the recognition and the reparation with regard to the harkis”, announced Monday, September 20 Emmanuel Macron during a ceremony of tribute at the Élysée.

The harkis are Algerians recruited locally as auxiliaries to the French army during the Algerian war (1954-1962) to fight against the FLN. But the day after the Evian Accords of March 18, 1962, consecrating the French defeat in Algeria, the French government refused the massive repatriation of these some 200,000 men. Only some 42,000 harkis, sometimes accompanied by their wives and children, were evacuated to France by the army and passed through camps with often unworthy living conditions.

Some 40,000 others get there through semi-clandestine or clandestine channels. In total, between 80,000 and 90,000 people arrived in France according to certain estimates, for the majority between 1962 and 1965. The others, disarmed, were left to fend for themselves in Algeria. Considered as traitors by the new regime, they and their families are victims of bloody reprisals.

Sixty years after the end of the Algerian war, Emmanuel Macron asked them for forgiveness on behalf of France. Gilles Manceron, historian specializing in the colonial history of France, member of the central committee of the League of Human Rights and author in particular of “The harkis, history, memory and transmission” (Éditions de l’Atelier, 2010) , returned on the antenna of France 24 on these declarations and on this wound which remains alive.

Emmanuel Macron, in his speech, announced a law and a reparations fund. According to you, France is taking a further step forward?

It is necessary to recognize what was done by France, by the French army, throughout the period of colonization and in particular during the Algerian war. I think this goes in the direction of recognition. He said it was not up to the head of state to tell the story, but that it was up to historians to describe it. As a historian, I would say that the harkis have been deceived. They were civilians, Algerian peasants who were deceived by France and especially by the French army which defined their status of auxiliary, people who only did the things that the French army asked them to do. and which sometimes were led by the French army to also do things which deeply marked the Algerian people in the violence exerted in particular at certain moments in the interrogations in particular.

The Head of State asked forgiveness from the harkis and their descendants. These words find it difficult to get across to some people. In the room, a woman in particular cried. Are these words particularly hard to hear from a President?

It is very difficult because the pain is immense on the part of these Algerian peasants or children or grandchildren of Algerian peasants who came to France after 1962 to flee a certain number of violence and massacres. It is extremely difficult to accept the fate they suffered or their parents or grandparents suffered in this war. There is a tremendous, overwhelming pain that cannot be overcome. I understand these reactions.

Isn’t there also a little skepticism among these descendants who have seen heads of state follow one another and make a lot of announcements even if we move forward with time?

They doubt because they’ve been told a lot of lies. At the time of the war itself, they were not really told what was going on. The army kept aside the statements of the head of state, General de Gaulle, who said that France was going to accept Algerian independence. The army, the army chiefs, General Salan, General Challe, in particular, put them at risk by defining an auxiliary status which locked them in a situation of potential victims. These generals were in favor of maintaining French Algeria. They wanted the abandonment of the harkis to be the very example of the impossibility of the abandonment of French Algeria. There was a trap. It is this history that it is up to historians to reconstruct and restore.

Why is this desire for recognition accelerating at this time?

There is a ten-year anniversary effect with the 60th anniversary of independence and the ceasefire in 2022, which is also an election year. Emmanuel Macron wants to devote his seven-year term from the point of view of memorial work to this truth about the Algerian affair and on colonization more generally. We cannot blame him. But simply, he has a hard time doing it. His choices and political alliances do not help him achieve his wish. There is still a lot of work and recognition needed from the state.

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