Why Is It So Hard to Say 'Sorry' in French?

France has never apologized for its treatment of colonial Algeria. Why not now?

As Algeria kicks off festivities for the 50th anniversary of its independence from France this week, all eyes are on the former colonial power's new president, François Hollande. Nine countries asked to join the party in Algiers -- including the United States, which conveyed American gratitude to three-term President Abdelaziz Bouteflika for Algeria's "key role" in global counterterrorism and regional security. The French government sent no representatives to the opening ceremony, held in Algiers on July 5, but said that Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius would travel there soon to advance a late-summer visit by Hollande, raising expectations that a turning point is near in the prickly post-colonial relationship.

Some anticipate that Hollande could become the first French president to apologize formally for more than a century of colonization and hundreds of thousands of war dead beteen 1830 to 1962. Officials in Algiers say a full and frank apology is long overdue. Should they expect normalization of Franco-Algerian relations from a leader who billed himself in the campaign as "président normal" -- in stark contrast to his predecessor, the frenetic Nicolas Sarkozy?

Hollande is the first French president with an explicitly post-colonial mindset. He was 10 weeks old when Algeria's National Liberation Front (FLN) took up arms against French occupation. His predecessor, Sarkozy, may be a year younger, but during his presidency he had no time for what he called "eternal repentance." And his party colleagues in parliament even passed a law praising colonialism's "positive role."

Hollande, on the other hand, has long been on conciliatory and friendly terms with Algeria. As a student, he interned in the French embassy there in 1978, and he returned to Algiers as a guest of the ruling FLN while he was Socialist Party secretary in 2006, where he was granted a lengthy meeting with Bouteflika. Two weeks after declaring his presidential candidacy in December 2010, Hollande returned to meet with the father of Algerian independence, Ahmed Ben Bella.

During those visits, Hollande forcefully condemned French colonialism as "an inequitable and oppressive system" that "must be condemned without reservation." The day he received his party's nomination, Oct. 17, 2011, Hollande participated in a memorial for Algerian victims of French police 50 years earlier. And at an unusual moment in late April  -- just one week before his runoff against Sarkozy -- he dispatched a former justice minister, born to French parents in Algeria, to repeat his pledge to resolve all past disputes.

Nonetheless, a straightforward apology faces two serious hurdles.

First, Hollande must sort through complex emotions in France. The French were not alone in the scramble for North Africa. Their military fought in the Algerian war of independence for more than twice as long as it did for France's own liberation during World War II. In 1962, when the French army withdrew, nearly a million settlers were forced to evacuate the only homes they knew. The settlers felt abandoned, and those who stayed behind were subject to kidnappings and disappearances. Some of those nostalgic for l'Algérie française included Hollande's own father, a local politician who supported a right-wing, pro-colonial presidential candidate in 1965. One recent political profile concludes that Hollande "constructed his political identity in rejection of his father's own choices."

Since both sides can point to senseless deaths and dislocation, albeit to different degrees, Hollande faces the challenge of acknowledging the traumas of this period in an evenhanded manner. On May 8, the day the French traditionally celebrate Germany's surrender in WWII, the Algerians mourn the thousands of protesters killed in Sétif. On July 5, the day the Algerians celebrate independence, the French commemorate the infamous massacre of French civilians at Oran at the end of the war.

Second, there is the awkward question of the Algerian government's democratic legitimacy. Hollande was a cheerleader for democratization in North Africa from the moment protests spread from Tunisia to Algeria in early January 2011, and he denounced his predecessor's "silence" on the matter. Hollande's own silence about irregularities in Algeria's recent legislative elections and any warm words for the FLN-led Algerian government could be held against him later on. Algeria hasn't seen uprisings on the scale of neighboring Tunisia or Libya, though the same frustration with a lack of democracy and rising food prices has led to a widespread discrediting of the formal political system and a rumbling undertow of small-scale unrest. A formal apology from France could be used by Bouteflika's regime to shore up its own legitimacy and paper over serious deficits.

Surprisingly, former French President Jacques Chirac's gestures toward French Jews might show a way to sidestep this domestic and international morass. In July 1995, 50 years after the end of WWII, the newly elected Chirac broke with years of official silence about the state's role in an emblematic episode of the Holocaust in France: the 1942 Vel d'Hiv raid, when Paris police participated in rounding up thousands of Jews for deportation to concentration camps on Nazi orders. Chirac's speech was resolutely specific and not a blanket apology. The republic "delivered her children to their executioners" when France "committed the irreparable" by helping to gather thousands of Jews in a staging area for deportation, the president said.

Chirac's apology didn't resolve all lingering bad feelings, but it initiated a healing process for French Jews. Within a few years, the government set up a fund to compensate French Jews whose belongings were seized or looted during the war, and established a foundation for the memory of the Holocaust with a broad pedagogic mission. Unlike Germany, France has avoided granting group status to claimants, preferring to compensate individuals instead -- almost as if they were victims of a natural disaster, each with individualized damages to be repaid. This places a clear ceiling on liability and saves the state from recognizing "communities," which has been a bad word in France since the Jacobins introduced universal citizenship.

The French colonial experience in Algeria was vast, spanning from the Bourbon Restoration to the Fifth Republic. But several moments during the 1954-1961 war stand out and could serve as the premise for a targeted apology. For example, there are the numerous well-documented cases of torture and summary execution by French forces as well as the drowning of FLN supporters in Paris on the night of Oct. 17, 1961. The French government could begin by launching an investigation to compensate victims' families where possible, setting up a modest presidential "truth commission," and establishing a public foundation dedicated to research on the war and the memory of its victims -- which the Algerian government says is as high as 1.5 million. (A public foundation for French research on the wars in North Africa exists, but nothing dedicated to Algeria alone.)

The departure from Algeria marked the twilight of empire and closed one chapter of French history. It also marked the beginning of a new chapter characterized by the growth of an Algerian-origin population in mainland France. Two million more Algerians soon settled in France as migrant laborers. It's estimated that nearly 10 percent of Frenchmen have a personal or familial tie to Algeria. These include those of Arab-Algerian descent, Berbers, descendents of European colonists, and Algerian Jews who were naturalized en bloc in 1870.

The lack of an official apology hasn't prevented Algerians from integrating into French society. Indeed, the new president's arrival coincides with a measurable increase in minority political participation. For the first time, France's Assemblée Nationale counts four deputies of Algerian and Arab background. Two of his ministers were born to Algerian parents. The Algerian grandfather of his industries minister fought with the FLN against the French. So it's safe to say that France has begun to digest the complex legacy of l'Algérie française.

With a soupçon of diplomatic courage, Hollande and his team could help turn the remaining two years of the Algerian president's term into something more than the twilight of a lame duck. Bouteflika himself announced in May that the country's political class resembled an "overripe orchard" -- i.e., time to make room for the next generation to blossom -- and that he would not run again for president. Saying sorry now would provide closure to the Algerian leadership, many of whom personally fought in the war of independence, and help transition the FLN to a post-revolutionary era.

Even if France didn't believe this Algerian regime deserves the honor of a unilateral apology, withholding one strengthens the hand of nationalists who portray a hostile and conspiratorial Western bloc to justify their grip on power. In May, the prime minister drew connections between "the colonization of Iraq, the destruction of Libya, the partition of Sudan and the weakening of Egypt" as all being "the work of Zionism and NATO."

Hollande needs to find a way to issue French regret in a show of respect for the historical parties in power, while addressing the Algerian people's yearning for internal reform as a counterpoint to French contrition. This bilateral relationship is critical in matters of security cooperation -- from counterterrorism to the chaos in Mali -- and it is worth billions in trade and natural gas contracts. Only once France and Algeria look beyond the colonial era can their vital collaboration work on behalf of the shifting regional dynamics -- and not against them.


Democracy Lab

Burma's Misled Righteous

How Burma’s pro-democracy movement betrayed its own ideals and rehabilitated the military

Sectarian rioting in western Burma has pitted the majority Buddhist population against a small Muslim minority group. Dozens of people on both sides have been killed, and countless homes destroyed. Thousands of refugees have taken flight.

This ethnic conflict has also had other, less conspicuous effects. Most importantly, it has triggered a dramatic realignment of political allegiances in the country. In a spectacular volte-face, a number of prominent members of Burma's pro-democracy opposition have begun calling for collaboration between civilians and the military in a bid to drive out what they claim are illegal Muslim immigrants who threaten the delicate fabric of Burmese society.

This recasting of the armed forces as protectors of the nation amounts to something of a coup for the quasi-military government that came to power a little over a year ago. Numbers of parliamentarians and exiled activists consider the Rohingya, an 800,000-strong Muslim group of South Asian descent who inhabit a pocket of Arakan state, to be a greater threat to the overall health of the country than a reinvigorated military. Yet this is the very same military that has spent decades persecuting the political opposition, forcing tens of thousands into prison or exile. It also happens to be one of the few institutions in Burma not touched by the reform program, as demonstrated by the army's continuing war against some of the country's restive ethnic minorities.

The government will see the flood of nationalist sentiment as a gift. Indeed, there is good reason to believe that officials may have had a role in whipping it up, as they did prior to the anti-Chinese riots of 1967 and the bouts of communal unrest involving Rohingya in 1978 and 1992. According to a Human Rights Watch report, security forces are actively persecuting ethnic Rohingya during this most recent bout of violence. The current riots serve to distract from ongoing ethnic conflicts in the north, public anger at rising electricity prices, and industrial workers' strikes in Rangoon, all of which have threatened the government's standing in recent months. The conflict also puts Aung San Suu Kyi in an awkward position, forcing her to choose between the morally unassailable but politically unpalatable high ground (since defending the Rohingya likely entails losing a large number of votes), or a more populist stand that yields to widespread bigotry. In the event, she has chosen to split the difference, speaking vaguely of a need to reform Burma's citizenship law as a way of resolving the conflict.

Currently leading the anti-Rohingya charge is the Rakhine [Arakan] Nationalities Development Party, which came in second in the province in the last general election of November 2010. They released a statement last week warning that the population of the Rohingya -- whom they label "Bengali immigrants" -- has reached "very alarming" levels, and called for swift action to segregate them from Arakanese and eventually resettle them overseas. Party Head Dr. Aye Maung, who had welcomed Suu Kyi's win in parliamentary by-elections in April "as a great chance for all of us to change Burma to a democratic country," recently called for Burma "to be like Israel" -- apparently a reference to the oppressive controls placed on Palestinians to ‘protect' Israelis. He urged civilians to work with the government to craft a policy to "defend this region" against the Rohingya, who "will be repeatedly trespassing on our territory."

Aye Maung is not alone. Religious figures and veterans of the pro-democracy movement have played a firm hand in stirring tensions, using language reminiscent of that which accompanied the Nazi pogroms. Ko Ko Gyi, a dissident who spent years behind bars for his leading role in the 1988 student uprising against military rule, has referred to the Rohingya as terrorists, and asserted that they are not an ethnic Burmese group but rather "[infringe] on our sovereignty." Such comments provide succor to the likes of Htay Oo, the powerful agriculture minister and a leading political hardliner. He has mooted the re-launch of Operation Dragon King, which was deployed under the guise of an anti-mujahideen campaign in the late 1970s to round up, arrest, and torture thousands of Rohingya, eventually forcing more than 200,000 into Bangladesh.

Playing the "terrorism" card conveniently separates the Rohingya, whose armed struggle ended a decade ago, from the ethnic "freedom fighters" elsewhere in the country. Few have asked how this distinction was reached, although unsubstantiated claims that Rohingya had been recruited by Al Qaeda gathered steam in the wake of 9/11, helping to cast the group as a malevolent force without needing to showcase evidence.

So what explains this apparent breakdown in the moral logic of Burma's internationally vaunted opposition force? There may be an issue with our perceptions of the pro-democracy movement. We have to ask ourselves whether we may have over-romanticized its battles against the junta as a broader quest to bring pure, universal human rights to Burma, when in fact we had little evidence of a wholesale commitment to the principle of tolerance. "Once the Burmese opposition no longer was confined to simply opposing (saying the right things), and actually had to suggest policies, what occurred was a sort of ‘return of the real,'" Elliott Prasse-Freeman, of Harvard's Carr Center for Human Rights, wrote in an email. "It became clear that ‘Human Rights' were just demands against power, and they didn't mean anything in terms of the kind of politics the opposition actually stood for."

What does the opposition then stand for? The picture has become somewhat clouded. To be sure, it is not the entire opposition that has taken this stance -- though many of its members, including Aung San Suu Kyi herself, have assumed positions of ambivalence about whether the Rohingya should be granted equal rights.

But for those wanting heavy-handed treatment of the Rohingya, the traditional notions of equality and universal human rights have already been discarded, and replaced by a demagogic brand of democracy contaminated by xenophobia. This fear of "the other" within Burmese society, a fear that has reared its head sporadically in the anti-Chinese and anti-Indian riots of the past century, has largely been overlooked in black-and-white depictions of the past 50 years as a struggle between military and civilian forces.

At the far end of the spectrum, many so-called democrats have moved to vilify an entire minority group, employ apartheid-like segregationist measures, and forge reactionary ties with their traditional enemy, the Burmese military. This stance presumes that the Rohingya are a threat to the entire country without really explaining why. In fact, most Rohingya are essentially held in an open prison in northern Arakan state, subject to a system of travel permits that tightly controls their movements, and which leaves them little opportunity to mobilize should they have any intention of doing so. But such considerations appear to matter little.

It seems that the Burmese have combined a longstanding fear of outsiders -- aided by decades of isolation -- with an internalization of the regime's propaganda, which casts the Rohingya as jihadists, uncivilized, proselytizing, and of detestable appearance. In a now-infamous letter to heads of foreign missions in Hong Kong, Burma's former consul-general, Ye Myint Aung, described the minority group as "ugly as ogres" in comparison with the "fair and soft" complexion of the Burman majority.

Their statehood will always be debated. Opponents of the minority cite the 1960s as the date of their arrival in Burma, while Rohingya leaders claim a millennia-old lineage dating from the time Muslim traders arrived in Arakan. This discussion, however, is somewhat extraneous to the key issue, which is why they should have earned such brutal treatment by both the government and civil society. Even if one accepts the argument that the Rohingya are comparatively recent migrants, this hardly justifies subjecting them to the same sort of persecution that the "democrats" have been resisting for years when it was imposed on them by the government.

There are clear double standards at play here. Rohingya are not accorded the same rights as others living in Burma, including the country's Chinese population, most of whom came more recently (even if one accepts the most conservative estimates for the Rohingya's arrival), and whose population dwarfs the Rohingya in size. Is this Muslim minority more of a "threat" than the Chinese immigrants? We can't answer until someone can properly articulate what this "threat" actually consists of. Groups like the UK-based Burma Democratic Concern, however, have resorted to wild fear-mongering, alleging that the Rohingya have massacred "tens of thousands of Burmese Buddhist Arakanese in the past," while others argue that Burma cannot support a "refugee" population.

Burma's first dictator, Ne Win, engineered citizenship laws to justify the expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya -- a policy he proposed in the wake of the mass expulsion of Indians in the 1960s and a ban on Muslims joining the army and government. This was an ideological crusade led by a notorious xenophobe who orchestrated Burma's retreat into isolation and economic ruin. That the pro-democracy forces now call for similar measures against the Rohingya has merely helped to rekindle his legacy.

These are sobering times indeed. Burma's opposition movement has won international admiration for its stoicism, and rightly so: After all, thousands have died or endured long prison terms in order to bring about a transition to democracy. The prospect of this delicate process being unraveled by the hypocrisy of those who fought for it is deeply saddening.