Francois Hollande broke with tradition on Thursday and took the unprecedented step of acknowledging the suffering resulting from France’s 132-year long occupation of Algeria.
Speaking before the Algerian parliament, in his first visit to the country as president, Hollande noted that though he had not come to apologize, “establishing the truth is an obligation that ties Algerians and French.” He went on to recognize some of the injustices of the “brutal” French rule of the North African country.
None of Hollande’s predecessors have come anywhere near acknowledging the harsh realities of French involvement in Algeria. France’s suppression of the independence movement in Algeria during the 50’s and early 60’s has long been a touchy subject in the country, studiously ignored by most politicians. French censorship laws were even resurrected at the beginning of the Algerian war, resulting in the banning of various books and films, famously including Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1966 masterpiece The Battle of Algiers. The official silence on the subject of Algeria has lingered five decades past Algeria’s independence — making Hollande’s speech all the more striking. (His words were met with hearty applause from Algerian lawmakers.)
However superficially praiseworthy they may be, it is clear the French president’s comments have less to do with past events than they do with the future of French-Algerian ties. Recession-hit France is desperately in need of an economic boost. The declaration of friendship signed by Hollande and Algerian president Abdelaziz Bouteflika may well allow for just that. French companies looking to benefit from the pact include car manufacturer Renault, which plans to build a factory west of Algiers, and cement group Lafarge.
The geopolitical benefit for France also looks to be significant. Algeria would play a crucial strategic role in any intervention into Mali, seemingly high on France’s foreign policy agenda for 2013; the North African nation, which shares an 800-plus-mile border with Mali has thus far been resistant to any French intervention plan. Hollande’s visit coincides with the U.N. Security Council’s adoption of a French-backed resolution authorizing the deployment of a support mission in Mali. It thus behooves France to enter and stay in Algeria’s good graces by any means necessary. Which makes any forelock-tugging by Hollande a matter of expedience – one of the few recent examples of the politically necessary act coinciding with the morally right one.