Sarkozy's Position on France's Colonial History

A Potpourri of Contradictions

Searching for a new direction for his foreign policy towards the former colonial states of North Africa, the president of France has become tangled in contradictory statements and promises. Bernhard Schmid reports

Nicolas Sarkozy during a military parade in Paris (photo: AP)
"It is possible to conduct a friendship without signing a friendship treaty," says Nicolas Sarkozy

​​"The friendship treaty between us is dead, long live our unbreakable friendship" is how the message delivered by French president Sarkozy this July in Algiers might best be summarized.

And on 12 July this year, the liberal French evening paper, Le Monde, lead with the words "on a visit to Algiers Nicolas Sarkozy buried the friendship treaty between France and Algeria."

He had come "neither to injure, nor to excuse himself, but as a friend," the newspaper quoted him as saying. It was better "to look resolutely towards the future" rather than dwell on the past, he added.

With these words Nicolas Sarkozy attempted to dismiss the last two years of debate over the French colonial past in one fell swoop, a debate initiated largely as a result of the French National Assembly passing the "Law of 23 February 2005".

Relieved of historical responsibility

Its legal provisions represent a rehabilitation for the country's colonial history, which suits large sections of the ruling French right wing perfectly as, having been forced into the defensive for many years during the period of de-colonization, they can now air their ideological views loudly again.

Even in the preamble to the law come the lines: "The nation expresses its recognition of the men and women who contributed to the work performed by France in the former French departments in Algeria, in Morocco, in Tunisia and in Indochina."

The project of a bilateral treaty intended to include political and diplomatic as well as economic and possibly military aspects, was the grand scheme of Sarkozy's predecessor. The plan for a new friendship treaty was always driven, alongside historical motives such as reconciliation following injuries during the war of independence, by geopolitical motives, not least the fact that US and Chinese competitors had threatened to outstrip France in North Africa in many areas.

Sarkozy's foreign-policy balancing act

This strategic interest remains a part of French foreign policy today. However under the presidency of Nicolas Sarkozy the tone has altered. He has definitely now turned his back on the project of a comprehensive friendship treaty. There are various reasons for this:

On the one hand Sarkozy undoubtedly doesn't wish to tread too conspicuously in his predecessor Chirac's footsteps, instead seeking to make clear that with his election a new era has begun. On the other hand Nicolas Sarkozy is also subject to the diverse expectations of his electorate.

Nicolas Sarkozy (photo: AP)
Nicolas Sarkozy: "I did not participate in the Algerian war; my generation does not bear the burden of history"

​​Part of his electorate during the French presidential elections in April and May, as well as the parliamentary elections this June, belongs to the far right.

Amongst the electorate in south-east France, where Nicolas Sarkozy won a great many votes from former constituencies of Jean-Marie Le Pen's Front National, former Algerian French are well represented. The one-time colonists of Algeria, also known as the Pieds Noirs, were resettled after Algeria gained independence in 1962, mainly in south-west and south-east France.

In his speech of 7 February this year in Toulon, one of the strongholds of the right-leaning exiles-lobby belonging to the Pieds Noirs milieu, Nicolas Sarkozy railed against the "penitence" allegedly brought to bear on colonial history.

And the previous April, a few days before the first round of the presidential election, in front of an association of former Algerian French he announced: "I am against a friendship treaty with Algeria." With this he played directly to the resentments felt in these circles against the Maghreb state.

Bringing the incompatible together in harmony

Later in the same month however Sarkozy took a very different tone when talking to the Algerian newspaper Djazaïr News: "I would sign the friendship treaty! And I condemn the colonial system unreservedly. France and Algeria enjoy an intimate relationship."

Sarkozy is now attempting to manoeuvre his way through the expectations, some highly contradictory, which his statements have aroused. Thus in Algiers he recently declared, "It is possible to conduct a friendship without signing a friendship treaty," and rapidly added, "I did not participate in the Algerian war; my generation does not bear the burden of history." In this way Sarkozy is trying to bring the apparently incompatible together in harmony.

Economic ties alongside nods to the old colonial lobby, bilateral declarations of friendship alongside acknowledgement of the resentment felt by a particular section of the electorate: no individual interest can exclude any other. Sarkozy is seeking to reconcile opposites. Whether he will succeed remains to be seen.

Bernhard Schmid

© 2007

Translated from the German by Steph Morris

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