PARIS – National repentance is in the news again, as it has been with remarkable frequency in recent years. In 2008, Australia’s then-Prime Minister Kevin Rudd apologized to his country’s Aborigines, while Queen Elizabeth II offered a moving gesture of contrition in Ireland a few months ago. And now, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, on a recent visit to the Caucasus, reiterated his advice to the Turks to “repent” for the massacres of Armenians committed by the decaying Ottoman regime in 1915.
Of course, Sarkozy would be surprised to be told that the same logic should lead to a declaration of repentance by the French state to Algeria, not to mention to the Algerian soldiers who fought under the French banner, the so-called “Harkis,” many of whom were abandoned to a terrible fate when France left the country in a hurry. As for those who managed to survive and cross the Mediterranean, France dumped them in segregated, under-served ghettos.
For many political leaders and analysts, repentance is a misplaced and excessive form of sensitivity. History is tough, they say. Besides, where does one begin apologizing – or, rather, end? Should one apologize for the Crusades, for the destruction of German cities by the armies of King Louis the XIV in the seventeenth century, not to mention the armies of Napoleon? Wouldn’t the result simply be to turn history into a perpetual cycle of contrition?
Yet, in a globalized age, which demands transparency and posits interdependence, repentance can be considered an instrument of good governance. A country that has lifted the carpet of myth and indifference under which the negative aspects of its past were swept is better able to manage itself and accommodate others.
Japan has never learned to interact with its Asian neighbors the way that Germany after World War II learned to cooperate with its future European partners, partly because its apologies have appeared formalistic and half-hearted, when they have taken place at all. The European Union exists (whatever its current difficulties) because Germany asked for forgiveness. And Germany today is able to distance itself – though clearly at the margin – from Israel’s current government because Germans fully confronted their past in ways that many of their neighbors have not.
To ask for forgiveness enables one to speak to the “Other” without ambiguity, with the freedom of speech needed to express truth. Indeed, former French President Jacques Chirac won a place in French history by proclaiming France’s responsibility for the crimes committed by the collaborationist Vichy government against its Jewish citizens during the Nazi occupation. The fiction, popularized by General Charles de Gaulle and pursued by François Mitterrand, that “Vichy was not France” had finally been interred.
Who will be the French president courageous enough to apologize to Algeria and the Harkis? Of course, French crimes during Algeria’s war of independence resemble those of Nazi Germany in neither scale nor motivation. It can be argued that during the colonial era, France willed the happiness of Algerians, not only the greatness of France. But it was the French who defined “happiness,” without consultation with the Algerians, much less their consent.
Today, as France engages the progressive forces of the “Arab Spring” – politically, if not militarily, as in Libya – can it continue to maintain a hypocritical stance towards Algeria, paying a high price in credibility for continuing its silence about the past? In terms of forgiveness, it is the strongest party that must apologize first. And democracy is an essential component of that strength, for it constitutes the most favorable ground for a responsible pedagogy of historical honesty.
Of course, one should not entertain too many illusions. The current Algerian government is quite comfortable denouncing France, and might continue to do so regardless of anything that the former colonial power does or says.
But that should not serve as an alibi for doing nothing. In July 2012, France and Algeria will commemorate the 50th anniversary of the birth of the Algerian Republic. Coming immediately after the upcoming French presidential election, the event offers an ideal opportunity for Sarkozy or his successor to engage in a symbolic act of repentance. Such a gesture would strengthen France both externally and in terms of the sentiments of its citizens of Algerian descent, whose difficulty in reconciling their dual identity has led some to turn to fundamentalist Islam.
Repentance is not a sign of weakness. On the contrary, it is a demonstration of tranquil and conscientious strength – and a precondition of good and realistic governance.