Francois Hollande admits France deserted Algerians who fought for colonial ruler as liberation war raged in the 1950s and 60s.
PARIS // French president Francois Hollande on Sunday acknowledged the state’s culpability in abandoning Algerians who fought alongside French colonial forces in Algeria’s war for independence – and were then massacred as traitors after the French retreat in 1962.
Tens of thousands of the fighters, known as harkis, were killed after the French withdrawal, and those who made it to France were placed in camps. Their descendants have long sought official recognition that the harkis were unjustly treated.
« I recognise the responsibility of French governments in abandoning the harkis, the massacres of those remaining in Algeria and the inhuman conditions for those transferred to France, » Mr Hollande said at the Invalides monument that houses Napoleon’s tomb.
« France betrayed its promise, turned its back on families, » he added, making the first official recognition of the state’s role in abandoning the harkis.
The harki contingent included some 200,000 forces who had fought against fellow Algerians in a war seen as one of the darkest chapters in France’s modern history.
Only in 1999, under then-president Jacques Chirac, did France officially admit that the eight-year combat that ended 132 years of French rule in Algeria was a war. The true number of Algerians who died in the war and its aftermath is unknown, as many were never identified. The wounds of the country’s colonial past remain deep on both sides of the Mediterranean Sea.
In 2002, Mr Chirac inaugurated a memorial near the Eiffel Tower to those who died fighting on the side of France, including harkis. He also began what is now an annual ceremony for the harkis every September.
Since becoming president Mr Hollande has been engaged in a drive to improve relations with the North African countries that France once ruled, with Algeria holding special significance.
In October 2012 he became the first French president to acknowledge that Algerians were massacred at an independence rally in Paris in 1961. The move ended decades of silence over a police crackdown that historians say may have killed more than 200 people.
Two months later, the French parliament passed a law designating March 19 as a day of national commemoration to honour the dead from the country’s conflicts in Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco.
March 19 was the date of ceasefires being announced in Algeria 51 years ago, one day after the signing of the Evian accord that led to the country’s independence.
The choice of date was met with much opposition, however, including families of the harkis and the so-called pieds-noirs, European settlers who fled to France. They complained that treating March 19 as the date on which hostilities in the Algerian war of independence ended in 1962 overlooked the widespread bloodshed that continued for many months after.
Other prominent politicians at Sunday’s ceremony included Mr Hollande’s potential rivals for next year’s election: conservative former president Nicolas Sarkozy and far-right National Front leader Marine Le Pen.
* Associated Press