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In Amboise, France pays tribute to its “best enemy”, the Emir Abdelkader

Following a recommendation in the report by historian Benjamin Stora, a stele in tribute to the Emir Abdelkader, hero of the fight against the French conquest of Algeria, was inaugurated on Saturday, near the castle of Amboise. The work was vandalized shortly before the ceremony.

It is a new symbolic gesture, supposed to bring France and Algeria on the path of reconciliation of memories. A stele paying homage to the Emir Abdelkader, a figure in the fight against colonization and father of the Algerian nation, was inaugurated on Saturday, February 5, on the banks of the Loire, in Amboise.

A sign that the approach is disturbing, the work, entitled “Passage Abdelkader” and signed by the Touraine artist Michel Audiard, was vandalized before the inauguration, which nevertheless took place. The mayor of Amboise, Thierry Boutard (DVD), expressed his “indignation”.

The history of the royal city and its famous castle built in the 15thand century are indeed intimately linked to the epic destiny of this charismatic, learned and religious Algerian soldier. A “bridge” character between East and West, according to Benjamin Stora, who had recommended this tribute on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of Algeria’s independence in his report submitted to Emmanuel Macron.

“He is a personality who imposes himself with a view to bringing memories together. He makes it possible to underline the complexity and the paradoxes of the relationship in the colonial space. At one time, an enemy of France, Abdelkader was become an ally of France”, recalls the historian Pascal Blanchard, joined by France 24.

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Specialist of the colonial fact, Pascal Blanchard recently proposed a list of 318 names to bring more diversity in the public space, in which appears that of the emir. “Abdelkader ticks all the boxes to enter the pantheon of imaginations”, slips the historian.

Coming from a family of the religious aristocracy, Abdelkader was chosen by the tribes of western Algeria in 1832 to organize the resistance against the French invader. A past master in the art of guerrilla warfare, he leads effective harassment campaigns but also proves to be a skilled negotiator.

From resistance to exile

For 15 years, Abdelkader made life difficult for the colonizers, inflicting famous defeats on them such as during the Battle of Macta in 1835. Cornered militarily, released by Morocco under pressure from the French, he was finally forced to capitulate, in December 1847, against the troops of Henri d’Orléans, Governor General of Algeria.

The emir then proposed his surrender on one condition: to be able to withdraw to Alexandria or Acre. In defiance of his word, he was taken to France, to Toulon then Pau, before being interned in the Château d’Amboise.

“It is a long French tradition to remove from the colonial field the personalities who oppose it”, underlines Pascal Blanchard, citing in particular the case of Abdelkrim el-Khattabi, Moroccan rebel, exiled on the island of Reunion in 1926 .

Abdelkader arrived in Amboise in November 1848 with a retinue of a hundred people: members of his family, companions and servants. Torn from the desert, his followers suffer from difficult living conditions in this icy and unsanitary castle. Several members of the retinue die while in custody.

Inaugurated in 2005, an Oriental garden, located within the grounds of the Château d’Amboise, consisting of a cenotaph and twenty-five contemporary engraved stelae, symbolizes these tragic destinies.

During his detention, the emir devoted himself to study, writing, meditation and prayer. To make captivity more bearable, Captain Boissonnet, in charge of the prisoners, authorized the call of the muezzin five times a day from the Garçonnet tower.

Then in 1851, Adelkader was allowed to leave the castle for supervised walks during which he conversed with the inhabitants. And yesterday as today, the locals have a deep respect for him.

“Everyone loves, respects and esteems the emir in Amboise”, assures the Amboisian writer Martine Le Coz, author of the book “Le Jardin d’Orient” (Michalon editions), contacted by France 24. “He had in particular long conversations with Father Rabion. He was a great scholar and an initiator of interreligious dialogue. Already, during the war, he had approached the Bishop of Algiers to write a charter on the way of treating prisoners of war”.

Heroes of a common history

Abdelkader finally obtained his release from Napoleon III in 1852, in exchange for his promise never to return to Algeria.

He would later become a leading interlocutor for France in the Arab world. In 1860, he achieved international recognition by playing a key role during anti-Christian demonstrations in Damascus, Syria, intervening between the rioters and their victims.

Five years later, he was received in Paris with all the honors of the Second Empire, then he was invited to the inauguration of the Suez Canal. The former enemy has become a strong ally and his image as a sage wins the support of the French elites, notably Freemasons.

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With this new tribute dedicated to the Emir Abdelkader, a figure of tolerance and open-mindedness, righteousness and magnanimity, the Elysée wants to symbolize the possibility of reconciliation between the two countries.

However, as soon as the project was announced last year, a petition launched by some fifty Algerian intellectuals opposed “this diversion” of a heritage which “belongs to our country, to our people and to all peoples who resisted colonial enterprises”.

“We may have different memories but we have a common history”, believes, for his part, Pascal Blanchard, who points here to the criticisms of a small minority. “It would be a mistake to think that everyone should have heroes who look like them”.

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