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Colonization of Algeria: should France apologize? Colonization of Algeria: should France apologize?
by Joseph Gatt
2021-07-22 09:11:53
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Short answer: France can not apply the post-1945 legal framework for events that took place before 1945. That is, until the end of the Second World War, conquest of foreign territories was legal, or at least accepted in the international community.

Only when weaponry and armament became so sophisticated that it could destroy entire cities and cause severe harm to the environment did the international community get together and start codifying an international framework on the art of war and conquest.

alg0001_400What was basically done in 1945 was to say that borders would be drawn for each nation, and that nations had to respect those borders and should not trespass each other's borders.

Now the interesting thing is Algeria wants apologies for the “crime of colonialism” by France. In 1830, the year Algeria started being colonized by France; colonialism was not illegal in anyone's books. The Ottomans conquered whatever territory they could, the British conquered whatever territory they could, the Prussians took whatever they could; the Russians took whatever territory they could, including Poland and Finland. Those were the days my friends!

I'm not saying colonization was not violent and cruel, I'm not saying it was a good thing. By the way, France, by colonizing Algeria, stole “Ottoman” territory, not Algerian territory per se!

Should France apologize for the crimes committed during the Algerian war of independence (1954-1962). Well, by definition, it was a war with soldiers on both sides. The French army raped and tortured, and the Algerian liberation army also raped and tortured.

In some circles in Algeria, you'll hear that “President Chirac apologized for France sending Jews to Nazi concentration camps, so France should apologize for killing Algerian soldiers during the War of Independence, and other massacres and atrocities, including mob lynching”.

The Holocaust was a different ball game. There were no Jewish militias. The Jews did not organize an army to fight the Nazis. The Jews did not provoke the Nazis in any other way than being Jews and not being Aryans. The Jews did not rebel against the Nazis, or fight a war against the Nazis. The Jews were tortured and gassed simply for their religious, cultural and ethnic heritage.

The Algerian war of independence was a bit of a different ball game. Now the lynching of an Algerian crowd of Muslim demonstrators on May 8, 1945 was indeed a huge tragedy, as Muslim protestors were massacred by the French army simply for demonstrating and demanding that Algeria become independent. In some cases, the entire crowd of demonstrators was thrown off cliffs by the French army.  

French colonial policies between 1945 and 1954 were despicable for my money, as despite the new Universal Declaration of Human Rights, France did not grant any form of citizenship to Muslim Algerians. Muslim Algerians did indeed have travel documents and birth certificates, but did not have the right to vote! An apology could be issued for that.

But you can't apologize for the War of Independence. Colonial France, for my money, fought a defensive war, not an offensive war against the Muslim army (the National Liberation Front). At least that's the impression I get from reading historical accounts, where the impression I got was the French army seemed to be passive, with only sporadic offensives.  

The National Liberation Front (the Muslim army), under the leadership of Mohamed Boudiaf and 11 other founders, initially wanted “sabotage operations that would cause no human casualties.” But those Muslim fighters who were caught sabotaging railroads or electricity grids were often severely punished by colonial French authorities, usually in the form of life in prison, sometimes death by hanging if accidental human fatalities were caused by the sabotage missions.

With the arrest of Boudiaf and most of the 11 other founding members in 1956, that's when the National Liberation Front fought an all-out war targeting the French army. French soldiers were killed so weapons could be collected, and there were all kinds of bloody actions taken by the National Liberation Front that caused lots of blood to be spilled.

But the National Liberation Front lost 20 to 50% of its soldiers. That is the French claim that 20% of FLN soldiers were killed in action, Algeria claims that 50% soldiers were killed in action (500,000 casualties is the French statistic, 1.5 million is the Algerian statistic).

Were there really 3 million Muslim soldiers in the National Liberation Army? Yes, but not all were in combat units. Which makes me believe the French statistic reflects reality more closely.

So, indeed, France did commit a bloodbath against Muslim soldiers who were under-armed, but the nature of the conflict was complicated.

France faced this complication: France had to delay the conflict until it made sure 100% that French settlers in Algeria (the famous pieds-noirs) would not rebel against an independent Algeria. After 8 years of bloody conflict, a lot of the pieds-noirs agreed that it was time to end the conflict, although many were not favorable to Algerian independence. Actually, many pieds-noirs wouldn't have minded the extermination of the Muslim population so they could stay in Algeria (true story!).

So, for my money, truth and reconciliation is more important than apologies. If you apologize to the National Liberation Army, what would become of the descendents of that French soldier, who did his military duty, and who was killed in action by the Muslim army. Multiply that by 25,000 cases of French soldiers who lost their lives in the conflict.

So truth, yes. Reconciliation, yes. But an apology for colonialism, that would be an anachronism. Apology for the war of independence that would be mistaking the very definition of war.

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