French President Emmanuel Macron was interrupted on Monday by a weeping heckler as he apologised to Algeria’s Harkis on behalf of his country.
The woman in the audience accused Macron of ‘making empty promises’ as he begged for forgiveness from the community, with the president responding by smiling and laughing awkwardly as she chastised him.
More than 200,000 Algerians fought with the French army in the war of independence that pitted Algerian independence fighters against their French colonial masters from 1954 to 1962.
At the end of the war – waged on both sides with extreme brutality, including widespread torture – the French government left the loyalist fighters known as Harkis to fend for themselves, despite earlier promises that it would look after them.
Trapped in Algeria, many were massacred as the country’s new masters took brutal revenge while thousands of others who escaped to France were interned in camps, often with their families, in degrading and traumatising conditions.
As the woman – the daughter of Harki fighter – continued, a visible uncomfortable Macron smiled and tried to calm her down. ‘I hear you,’ he told her, calling for a joint reconciliation effort.
French President Emmanuel Macron was interrupted on Monday (pictured at the Elysee Palace in Paris) by a weeping heckler as he apologised to Algeria’s Harkis on behalf of his country
‘I want to express our gratitude to the fighters,’ Macron said at a ceremony at the Elysee Palace attended by around 300 people, mostly surviving Harkis and their families.
‘I’m asking for forgiveness. We will not forget,’ Macron said, adding that France had ‘failed in its duty towards the Harkis, their wives, their children’.
The centrist president, who has been tackling some of the darker chapters of France’s colonial past, said the government would draft a law on the recognition of the state’s responsibility towards Harkis and the need for ‘reparation’.
Previous French presidents had already begun owning up to the betrayal of the Algerian Muslim fighters.
Macron’s predecessor Francois Hollande in 2016 accepted ‘the responsibilities of French governments in the abandonment of the Harkis’.
The meeting came days before national Harki day, which has been observed since 2003 – especially in southern France where many of the surviving fighters settled after the war.
Their political sympathies often lie with the nationalist right whose leader, Marine Le Pen, is the frontrunner among Macron’s rivals in France’s presidential election next spring.
Pictured: French President Emmanuel Macron delivers a speech during a meeting in memory of the Algerians who fought alongside French colonial forces in Algeria’s war, known as Harkis, at the Elysee Palace in Paris, Thursday, Sept. 20, 2021
Pictured: A grab from a video showing Macron’s speech in which a tearful woman (pictured centre) interrupted him, accusing Macron of ‘making empty promises’
Authorities have in the past allowed a number of legal procedures to go ahead for the Harkis and their families to claim damages from France.
Ahead of the ceremony, Harki organisations had demanded an official recognition of their treatment to be enshrined in a law by the end of the year.
‘We hope that you will be the one to end 60 years of a certain hypocrisy by which the abandoning of the Harkis is recognised in speeches, but not in the law,’ they said in an open letter to Macron.
Macron’s initiative comes over a year after he tasked historian Benjamin Stora with assessing how France has dealt with its colonial legacy in Algeria.
The report, submitted in January, made a series of recommendations, including owning up to the murder of a prominent Algerian independence figure and creating a ‘memory and truth commission’.
Salah Abdelkrim (R) is awarded with the ‘Chevalier de la Legion d’honneur’ by French President Emmanuel Macron during a ceremony in memory of the Harkis
Macron has already spoken out on a number of France’s unresolved colonial legacies, including nuclear testing in Polynesia, its role in the Rwandan genocide and war crimes in Algeria.
Before the end of his mandate he is expected to attend ceremonies marking the anniversaries of two key events still weighing on French-Algerian relations.
One is the brutal repression of a demonstration of Algerians on October 17, 1961, by Paris police who beat protesters to death or drowned them in the river Seine.
The other is a signing of the Evian accords on March 18, 1962, which ended the war of independence.
Grim fate of the Harkis: ‘Betrayed’ soldiers who fought with France in Algeria’s war of independence
Pictured: A young Harki in Algeria, 1961
As French President Emmanuel Macron formally apologises to the Harkis on Monday, the grim fate of the Muslim Algerians who fought on the side of France during their homeland’s war of independence remains a blot on France’s history.
Up to 200,000 Harkis – the name comes the Arabic word for ‘movement’ given to the mobile units in which they served – fought for the French colonial power during France’s 1954-62 war with Algeria’s National Liberation Front (FLN).
After a peace accord granting Algerian independence was signed on March 18, 1962, only around 42,000 Harkis were allowed to go to France, some bringing their wives and children.
The French government initially refused to recognise their right to stay and many were held for years in squalid internment camps.
In all up to 90,000 men, women and children fled. The rest remained in Algeria, where many were massacred.
Harki activists in France who tried to prosecute Algeria in 2001 for crimes against humanity claimed 150,000 were killed.
Despised as traitors in Algeria, in France the Harkis were an inconvenient reminder of a painful defeat.
The seven-year war of independence in Algeria saw nationalists rise up against and eventually defeat their French colonial rulers. There were atrocities on both sides and the conflict left some half a million dead.
Some 400,000 Harkis and their descendants live in France today.
Pictured: National Liberation Army fighters, photograph for postcard by Ministry of Information of Provisional Government of Algerian Republic, c. 1960
They have fought a decades-long struggle, including hunger strikes and demonstrations, for official recognition of what happened to those left behind in Algeria.
Their integration into France has been difficult as they are considered immigrants but are rejected by other immigrants.
Former Algerian president Abdelaziz Bouteflika compared them with Nazi collaborators during a visit to Paris in 2000.
While criticising the conditions under which they were housed in France, he ruled out their return to Algeria.
In September 2001, France held its first ever national day to honour to the Harkis.
Right-wing politicians have rallied to their cause – often during election campaigns – but with little concrete results.
Pictured: A portrait of a Harki in Algeria in 1959 during the Algerian war
In September 2016, Socialist president Francois Hollande formally admitted that France ‘abandoned’ the Harkis.
‘I recognise the responsibility of French governments in abandoning the Harkis, the massacres of those who remained in Algeria and the inhuman conditions for those transferred to camps in France,’ Hollande said.
Two years later a 40-million-euro aid package was created for them and their families.
The same year, France’s highest court ordered the state to pay compensation to the son of a Harki for damage to his health in the camps.
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