French President Francois Hollande said on Wednesday that he had not come to Algeria to offer “apologies” for crimes committed during the colonial period.
“I have not come here... to offer repentance or apologies. I have come to say what is true,” Hollande told a news conference in Algeria, on the first day of his landmark visit to the former French colony.
The trauma of the 1954-1962 Algerian war, in which hundreds of thousands were killed before France’s departure, left deep scars in both countries which still hold back a partnership France believes could help revive the Mediterranean basin.
Hollande said the two countries had agreed a friendship declaration and a five-year strategic pact covering economic, cultural, agricultural and defense ties.
“There is a truth to be spoken about the past and there is also a willingness to face the future. And this trip, it is focused on the future, to try and mobilize our two societies,” the French president said.
“I’ve always been clear on this question: truth about the past, truth about colonization, truth about the war, with its tragedies, truth about the wounded memories,” he added, in response to a question about Algerian demands for French repentance.
“But at the same time, (there must be a) willingness not to let the past block us but on the contrary to work for the future. Once it has been recognized, the past must allow us to go much faster and much further in confronting the future.”
“That is what I will tell Algeria’s parliamentarians tomorrow,” he added.
Prior to his visit, some 10 political parties, including four Islamist groupings, denounced the refusal of the French authorities “to recognize, apologize for and compensate” the crimes committed during 132 years of French colonial rule.
While France wants to heal the wounds left by the war, 58-year-old Hollande, who spent eight months working at the French embassy in Algeria in 1978, has limited room for maneuver.
A formal apology for its colonial past is a sensitive issue. Many French citizens who lived there before independence and who fought in the French army against Algerian insurgents oppose the idea, as do former loyalist Muslim volunteers known as “harkis.”
Algeria has 12 billion barrels of oil reserves and is the world’s largest French-speaking nation in terms of its surface area. Yet annual trade with France is just 10 billion euros and as Algiers diversifies its economy, China, Spain and Italy have eroded France's market share.