During France’s 25th presidential elections, the candidates discussed colonization and sparked national debate. Nady Thiam weighs in on the controversy.
The above quote translates as: “Our ancestors, the French.” -said by a young Senegalese student, circa 1900s
“Until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.”
Most of us are aware that France is the land of many great things: pastry, wine, cheese, museums etc. However, like years of negationism have shown, it is not surprising that a some French people are not good at recognizing and understanding a very important part of their history, and the atrocities that have been committed in certain parts of the world by their ancestors. Even more spectacular is the fact that this part of their history “officially” ended less than 70 years ago.
Enough with the chit chat, though, let’s get into the heart of this article.
France is currently going through its 25th presidential elections and like in all elections, the candidates are ruthlessly fighting to earn the biggest portion of the votes. One of the most prominent ones, Emmanuel Macron, the head of the progressive and social liberal political party En Marche!, is currently under fire after a visit to Algeria, during which he gave an interview affirming the following after being asked about “colonization”:
“It’s a crime. It’s a crime against humanity. It’s truly barbarous and it’s part of a past that we need to confront by apologizing to those against whom we committed these acts.”
This statement might seem benign to you, but it caused an uproar, especially among the conservatives and far right, and a huge debate in France for the past couple of weeks. The problem with his words is that France is particularly sensitive about that part of its history.
Again, we can write extensively about how Macron is using this as a ruse to gain more votes because the brother was actually saying very different things a couple of months ago. Actually, just a few days afterward, Macron made an announcement saying that he was talking about the colonization that led to the war in Algeria, insinuating that the colonization in Mali or Senegal does not deserve to be seen as crimes against humanity as well. The goal of this article is, however, not to side with a candidate or praise another, trust me. This is merely an attempt to analyze the responses this issue has gotten, as well as to provide a historical background to support our position regarding whether the notion of “crimes against humanity” deserves to be used here.
“Things” happened during that war in Algeria, as well as throughout the colonization era in other parts of the continent, and France has refused, for the longest time, to fully recognize those “things”, let alone define them as crimes against humanity.
Because this is quite a complex issue that is not as famous as it should be, we will take the time to outline the historical events surrounding it.
Colonization, Algerian War and the fight for independence (a very quick and concise historical background)
Before World War II, France possessed one of the largest colonial empires in Africa, expanding through most of the colonies from the North to the Center. In a sense, colonization was the New Imperialism’s version of slavery. A bunch of European countries met in 1885 during the Berlin Conference and decided to divide and share a continent that was not theirs, all in the name of racism and commercial gain. They literally just drew lines across the continent and put a name to each part, and then everybody clapped and smiled (I am like 99% sure there were claps, it just seems right). This event is referred to in history as “the scramble for Africa” and marks the beginning of the era during which European powers decided to implement rulings reminiscent of slavery.
Colonization was based on two main things: economic gain and a civilizing mission. The metropole put in place very harsh rulings and forced labor in order to extract the maximum profit and resources from the colonized lands. For example, they brought cash crops and replaced the native ones. There is a long list of other commerce-related things that happened, we’ll stop here.
The second drive of colonization, the civilizing mission, was just as racist and evil as the first one. Indeed, France decided that we didn’t have a civilization, and we had to adopt to the French one to be more like human beings as well as speak their language, because as you know, Africans were all communicating in monkey screams back then.
France is known for having one of the most ruthless colonizing methods, as it was a direct ruling system paired with assimilation that pretty much aimed at transforming my ancestors into second class French citizens. As history taught us in the U.S. or South Africa, nothing great comes out of being a second class citizen, not even in your own homeland.
Assimilation was not just limited to culture and language; it went as far as dictating a religion to the colonized.
This was the case in Algeria, where European immigrants settled, and will later be referred to as “Pieds-noirs”. The country was divided between this population of settlers and the Muslims who were the majority. Muslims were to a certain extent segregated, and they had to go through a system that many qualified as “quasi-apartheid”. In order to gain certain rights in their own country and/or become French citizens, they had to renounce their religion and cultures.
This led to a rise in tension and eventually the Algerian war for independence from the French that started in 1954. A lot of deaths were registered in both parties, with a bigger number among the Muslims. The death tolls differ greatly from the two countries but the massacre that happened has long been seen as a genocide by scholars such as Jean Paul Sartre, Frantz Fanon, Aimé Césaire… To this day, France has not formally apologized for such barbarism committed in Algeria and against Algerians.
This war is very meaningful to the French colonies because it amplified the unrest created during the fight for independence that started after the Second World War. France was put in a position where it knew that its colonial control could lead to more damages. In a sense, those fighting in Algeria against the French sacrificed their lives for many countries’ independence even though the fight for freedom took various forms around the continent.
Is colonization a crime against humanity?
Let’s talk current events, mainly the relationship between France and the atrocities it committed during the colonial era.
Is colonization a crime against humanity? This term is defined as “certain acts that are deliberately committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population or an identifiable part of a population.” I believe that the many lives that were lost during the colonial era as well as the trauma it brought the continent are enough to make it a crime against humanity, not only in the case of France but other European countries such as Belgium or Britain. It was both a widespread and systematic attack against Africans regardless of the very false and absolutely not needed civilizing mission it claimed to have.
France has still not fully recognized or apologized for this dehumanizing act. Officially, colonization does not enter the notion of crime against humanity as defined by the French justice system, because of course, they will make sure to formulate it in such a way that those crimes won’t be taken into account. The oppressor will not define rules that will put him in trouble and the 1900s were not really awesome years for some people’s human rights…
Some of the responses this colonization comment controversy has gotten over the past couple of weeks are really worthy of our time.
Florian Philippot, the vice president of the right wing party in France, le Front National, made the following remarks on Thursday:
“C’est un crime contre l’humanité les routes qu’on y a laissé, les écoles qu’on y a mis, les hôpitaux qu’on a construit, la langue française laissée en héritage, la culture française?”
“Is it a crime against humanity the roads we have left behind, the schools we built, the hospitals, the French language they have inherited from us and the French culture?”
This type of blatantly racist and offensive response is shared by an alarming number of French politicians and diplomats who will not shy away from keeping alive the neo-colonialism that is greatly impacting the economies in almost all former French colonies. For God’s sake, even our currencies are tied to France in an intricate system that we have yet to dismantle.
Allow me to set the record straight:
- The roads that were built in the former colonies were not for Africans. It was meant to facilitate the exploitation that was already happening. In certain colonies, they forced the indigenous people to build railroads that they were not even allowed to use.
- “Schools” existed before the white man entered the continent. Africans had scholars and very structured kingdoms, as well as empires. This might come as a surprise, given the amount of Hollywood movies portraying pharaohs as white, but Egypt is an African country. The myth of the savage African is a key component of the racism that funded slavery and colonization.
- French language and culture: I’m just gonna have to pass this one. Someone once said “Les cons ça ose tout, et c’est même à ça qu’on les reconnait.”
Is there any positive side to colonization? You might wonder. Well, I am glad you asked.
Evolving from the times, I was taught in my heavily French-influenced history classes in high school that Africans needed colonization, I have spent some time pondering this question and my response can be summed up in a gif and a picture:
White people: colonization was a system that brought lots of benefits
African people : TO YOU pic.twitter.com/X2IN55M18J
— Johnny McMarmotte (@The_Nonomiss) February 16, 2017
Now if you need someone to explain to you why forcing another human being into servitude is bad, you might need some counseling with that.
Another presidential candidate, Francois Fillon, went as far as saying last year that “France should not be blamed for wanting to share its culture with the people in Africa…” (Jeune Afrique)
Once again, no. Colonization was not merely a sharing of culture. We didn’t meet on a playground with our Senegalese cuisine and your French dresses to have fun and share laughs. Colonization was a criminal act.
The rest of the candidates, just like many other politicians before them, are either tiptoeing around the issue or have a history of making similar nonsensical remarks. It is not a surprise that the only one who has always been decisive in strongly opposing those ideas is the Senegalese-born French candidate Rama Yade. (Buzzfeed)
Former colonies are not just infuriated because France avoids anything that will make them look bad regarding colonization. We understand the weight of history, because for the longest time, we’ve had to fight with a country that wanted (and still wants) to pass laws forcing the teaching in schools of the “positive sides” of colonization, which are none, unless you decide to create a parallel universe.
The leader of Le Front National, Marine Le Pen made similar remarks in 2013 affirming that French students need to be taught a history that will make them proud of their country. France also passed a law that was supposed to force teachers in schools to talk about the absolutely non-existent and imaginary positive sides of colonization. These types of narratives were repeated over and over again during these past days about how calling it a crime against humanity was a way of making French people ashamed of their history. This is a classic way of centering the debate around an issue we should not be worried about. If us asking that the history of colonization be told fairly and truthfully makes you uncomfortable and ashamed of your country, I really don’t know a solution to that and I will not try to find one. The former colonies cannot worry about racism, neo-colonialism, poverty, wars and add to it trying to find ways to make anyone feel less ashamed of their grandfather who raped, killed and dehumanized people around the world.
Colonization is to be taken as a whole. We are not going to accept people making pro and cons lists. Its primary mission was the subordination and dehumanization of human beings. From that moment, it loses all rights to be turned into a good thing.
We should refuse to listen to arguments along the lines: “Oh, we have written hundreds of books about how black people are below the human race, but check out that road we built in Saint-Louis, pretty cool huh?!” or “We have killed thousands and thousands of your ancestors, but how about that French language we left you?”
The infrastructures that were built were either directly or indirectly meant to benefit the colonizers. They didn’t build hospitals because they “liked” us, but they understood that they needed to keep us alive because otherwise, what labor would they have for the plantations?
The truth is something we are all entitled to, and it is not history’s job to make people feel less ashamed of their ancestors to its detriment. It is, however, meant to help you not repeat their mistakes.
And this is one important reason why the former colonies are trying as hard as they can to make sure that the evil that was done during colonization be recognized and taught with truth. Colonization has hardly left the continent, and it remains in a new system usually referred to as neo-colonialism. For example, France is still heavily involved in the economies of its former colonies with almost the same patronizing and exploitive mission.
France cannot continue trying to teach alternative facts to its citizens or reduce the need for a true representation of Colonization to a desire that we have to make the French people “repent” for the mistakes of their ancestors. The issue here isn’t that teaching colonization is going to make us “hate” or “resent” French people. This is just another way of politicizing and delegitimizing an issue which is not a grey area, but fully black or white. It is a false debate and I am pretty sure we are not expecting a hug and tears from every French person in the world; I can assure you we’ll do just fine without them.
But I will highlight that I believe recognizing the evil of Colonization should come with a set of compensations directed to the former colonies for the various damages that were done as well as the dissolution of systems that perpetuate neo-colonialism (and maybe stop telling us about how excited y’all are to “help” us exploit our “potential” or “resources,” history shows that we have hardly ever gotten out of such situations with something good).
These presidential elections have yet again shown a class of politicians and some French citizens who are not ready and do not want to look at the past that continues to impact them more than they think. Colonization was not a humanitarian workshop or a fun exchange program for Africans; it took away lives, cultures, and systems that were fundamental to so many African societies. We can also argue that it is one of the roots of the racial divide and islamophobia found in France nowadays. It’s not just immoral to paint and teach a false picture of colonization, it is also dangerous. Just a couple of weeks ago, a young black man was sodomized in the Banlieues while the police officers proceeded to call him “Bamboula” and other racial slurs. We also witnessed an attempt to reopen a cabaret that was literally called “Bal Nègre,” subtly glorifying a horrible past (Buzzfeed).
The only things we took out of colonization are foreign languages that divide us further (I am looking at you, French), political and economic systems that do not fit our cultures or development and foster the rise of tyranny and inequality, borders that prompt wars, and a trauma we have yet to overcome. Also, we are not talking about something that ended 100 or 200 years ago because some of the tirailleurs who were forced to go to a war they didn’t create are still alive, some of the Algerians who went through torture and segregation are still on this Earth. They deserve compensation and recognition because the wounds are still open and avoiding to face that past has never been the right way to deal with it. You do not put out a fire by simply ignoring the flames.
Nah honey, that’s not how it works.
This article was written by Nady Thiam. Please send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org to get in touch.
Photo Credit: Nady Thiam