There is no denying that France is now a culturally diverse country, and at times it struggles to deal with its diversity. Even today, history and its legacies play a major role in shaping contemporary French society and collective memory for non-Muslims and Muslims living in France. History affects the way the different communities in the country interact, and also how the state interacts with the Muslim population. France and North Africa, especially Algeria, which was once considered administratively a part of France, have deeply intertwined histories, and often-conflicting memories. These need to be addressed in order to promote better relations between French and North African communities, and between the French state and its Muslim minority.
Muslim-non-Muslim relations have been part of the French story since at least the 19th century, when France became a colonial power in Muslim North Africa. More recently, the story has continued within France’s own borders as successive waves of workers and students migrated from its former colonies, primarily Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia. Many of these immigrants’ descendants are now French citizens, and predominantly Muslim.
To promote better dialogue between French Muslims and non-Muslims, a wider knowledge of certain historical facts is important. For example, a great number of North African Muslim soldiers, also known as tirailleurs or turcos, were drafted in the French army during World War I and World War II. Many died in the trenches at the Battle of Verdun in 1916. The Great Mosque of Paris was actually created in 1926 to honor those Muslims who had fought for France. It was also the first major symbolic and official acknowledgement of Islam’s presence on French soil.
Since then, and especially after the end of the Algerian war in 1962 which marked the conclusion of the French colonial era, France has been interacting with the Muslim minority mainly through state institutions.
In 2003, former President Nicolas Sarkozy created France’s Muslim council, the Conseil Français du Culte Musulman. His aim was to bring together leading branches of Islam and various Islamic organizations, including the Great Mosque of Paris, all of which have strong ties with Algeria, Morocco or Tunisia.
Re-examining France’s colonial past regarding these countries can help promote better relations today between France’s North African community and non-Muslims.
Efforts are being made in this direction. Indeed, President François Hollande, who is scheduled to visit Algeria before the end of the year, sent a letter to Algerian president Abdul-Aziz Bouteflika on July 5, Algeria’s Independence Day. He talked about a “clear and responsible look on its [France’s] colonial past.” This could mean France’s official acknowledgment of its responsibility in the massacres at Setif and Guelma, which occurred during demonstrations for the independence in Algeria in May 1945.
Steps like these could put an end to a “battle of memory,” a phrase used by leading French historian Benjamin Stora about how to view the colonial past between Muslim and non-Muslim communities, and help rebuild a society that is sometimes still divided over past allegiances.
It is imperative to provide a more balanced view of what France’s colonial past was really about; it was not only a “civilizing mission.” France should acknowledge both the problems with colonialism as well as Muslims’ past contributions to France, such as the Muslims who served in World War I and World War II, for the sake of reconciliation – and make sure that history books and school programs reflect these.
Moreover, historians from both sides of the Mediterranean should work together on projects related to collective memory – French historian Benjamin Stora and Algerian historian Mohammed Harbi have been leading the way – and revisit France’s colonial legacy in Algeria as well as in other North African countries. It is necessary to leave behind a divisive “war of memories” and move forward.
In the future, shared access to historical archives both in France and Algeria could help create stronger connections between historians in both countries in order for them to develop a shared historical narrative.
With the recent election of Hollande, French society is looking again at the place of Islam in France. The Hollande presidency hopefully marks the opening of a new chapter for a more inclusive society – and looking at history is important step in moving towards this goal.
Katia Yezli is a freelance writer in Paris. THE DAILY STAR publishes this commentary in collaboration with the Common Ground News Service (www.commongroundnews.org).