When the Algerian military transport stopped, the country’s leader, the army chief and a Muslim cleric lowered their eyes as 24 coffins covered in the green, white and red of their national flag were transported down the runway.
For the president Abdelmadjid TebbouneThe moment was the recognition of a massacre by the French more than 170 years ago. For Macron, it is part of his effort to project a modern image of the French state at a time when ethnic divisions in the country have been exposed by Black Lives Matter protests against police violence.
George Floyd’s death has started a series of violent demonstrations in that country. Trump has threatened to deploy the Army if they don’t stop.
Now that Group of 20 finance officials will discuss a heavily French-backed plan for African debt relief on Wednesday, Macron may have hoped to be granted special status. But in fact, it is struggling to preserve France’s historic role in a part of the continent that it dominated for more than a century.
Macron has said he wants to see the return of many more African relics and artifacts taken during the colonial era. Supports efforts in West Africa to break away from the common currency and he has vowed to open the files on the genocide that took place under a French-backed government in Rwanda.
It will not be enough.
With more than a billion increasingly urbanized people driving rapid economic growth, Africa is attracting the interest of emerging powers such as China, Russia, the Gulf states and Turkey. That means the continent’s leaders are less reliant on France anymore, while Macron’s own bridge-building efforts are held back by the political threat at home. Marine Le Pen, the right-wing populist who won a third of the votes when she ran for president in 2017.
Social tensions in French cities and loss of influence abroad can be traced to the same problem: France’s failure to confront its bloody past, according to Brahim Senouci, a physics professor at the University of Cergy-Pontoise who campaigned for 10 years for the skulls of the fighters to be returned to Algeria.
“Macron is on the front lines of this battle and is playing for the survival of France’s place in the world,” he said in an interview.
After the independence of a wide swath of countries in the northern part of Africa some 60 years ago, Charles de Gaulle established a network of relationships to maintain French influence.
Paris provided military backing to friendly regimes in exchange for diplomatic support and lucrative deals for their companies, often turning a blind eye to domestic abuses. Even after independence in 1962, French nuclear tests exposed thousands of Algerians to radiation poisoning.
Past presidents have condemned that legacy. But none have tried to do much about it.
“Crime against humanity”
Macron, 42, is the first French leader born after the colonial era, and it shows.
At a 2017 campaign stop in Algeria, he called France’s actions in the country “a crime against humanity,” unprecedented words for a presidential candidate.
Of all the former African territories of France, Algeria provokes the strongest reaction. It was run as another part of the French state and only gained independence after a brutal war that left huge fractures in French society.
An official close to the president said Macron believes France for years took its relationship with its former colonies for granted. Now, the administration has understood the fact that it has work to do, the official said.
Macron himself argued in an Oct. 2 speech that France also needs to reach a new understanding of its past, so that those whose ancestors suffered from colonialism can feel that they belong as much as those whose families benefited from it.
France “has an unresolved trauma with events that have laid the foundations for our collective psyche, our project, the way we see ourselves,” he said.
The scale of the challenge in Africa became painfully obvious to the president on a visit to France’s largest overseas military base in Djibouti last year.
When he took office three years ago, the plot next to the French base was empty. When he visited it in March 2019, it was occupied by a Chinese camp that would dwarf the French presence.
The IMF forecasts that the world Gross Domestic Product in 2021 will increase by 5.2%. This year it will contract by 4.4%.
The President of Djibouti, Ismail Omar Guelleh |, he also lives in a palace built by the Chinese and is connected to neighboring Ethiopia by a new railway built by the Chinese.
His people worship in a giant Ottoman-style mosque, known as “Turkey’s gift to Djibouti.”
When Macron addressed a select audience in the capital, one of Guelleh’s top advisers said the spotlight would return to China as soon as he leaves: They come with real money, the official said.
It is not just trade and investment that give China and Turkey an advantage in Africa. They don’t have to deal with the colonial history that looms over France and other European powers.
ErdoganIn particular, it seeks to present Turkey as a benevolent alternative, staunchly supporting Islam, while challenging European influence in the eastern Mediterranean and Libya.
“The history of Africa is literally the history of France,” Erdogan said in a televised speech in September, addressing Macron directly. “You are the ones who killed a million people in Algeria. You are the ones who killed 800,000 in Rwanda. You cannot lecture us.”
Such words have resonance.
After the remains of the Algerian fighters were buried this summer, President Tebboune demanded that Macron formally apologize and open classified files on the war for independence.
In Mali, protesters burned the French flag last year, blaming French troops for failing to crack down on an Islamist insurgency that France has been helping fight since 2013.
When there is no anger, France is often met with indifference on the part of a new generation of Africans.
“Our common history is still important,” says the former prime minister Soumeylou Boubeye Maiga. But young Malians “have other priorities. They identify as Africans first and foremost.”
In response, Macron is trying to move away from crisis management to focus on cooperation in education, entrepreneurship, culture and sport. He wants France to be seen as a defender of the interests of Africa, says an official familiar with French politics.
When Covid-19 hit Africa, it was Macron who called for a debt moratorium, phoning European allies to seek a united response, according to a French official.
The French president warned of an “unprecedented” international crisis due to inequality.
But time and again those efforts are undermined by internal dynamics.
Macron learned the price of discussing history during the 2017 campaign, when his comments on Algeria sparked fierce attacks from Le Pen.
Gerald Darmanin, assistant to the former president Nicolas sarkozy, whose Algerian grandfather fought alongside the French in the war of independence, said Macron should be ashamed.
Francois Fillon, the dominant right-wing candidate, said that Macron’s “hatred of our history” was “unworthy of a presidential candidate.”
In the southern city of Toulon, where many settlers fled after the war, angry voters criticized Macron for “treason.”
Heading into the 2022 elections, Macron seeks to protect himself against those attacks.
In July, he elevated Darmanin from Minister of Budget to Minister of the Interior and gave him the responsibility of rebuilding trust between the state and the police. In October, he unveiled a bill that would create new powers to crack down on those who threaten the secular values of the republic.
President Emmanuel Macron replaces the rising Édouard Philippe with Jean Castex, a member of the conservative Republican party and a new face on the French political scene.
Those gestures have taken much of the shine off his efforts to reestablish relations with Algeria and its neighbors.
When he was campaigning for the return of the skulls, Senouci wrote in an open letter to Macron that his return would usher in a new era in France’s relationship with Africa.
He doesn’t believe that anymore.
“I was too excited,” he says.
Much remains to be done to open up the country’s colonial history and prevent it from “poisoning the imagination” of young people growing up in immigrant communities from French housing projects, he says.
But in the basement of the Musée de L’Homme in Paris, another 18,000 skulls are still under lock and key.