Algeria and France have long had a tenuous relationship fraught with struggles for power, colonization and even out-and-out war.
From France’s colonization of the North African country lying to the south of its shores in 1830 to the eight-year-long Algerian War which ended with Algeria’s independence, the pairing has long been one of complication and difficulty.
Steps were taken last week, however, to further mend the two nations’ checkered past. On Friday, France returned the remains of 24 freedom fighters to Algeria 170 years after the colonial conflict there. On Sunday, those fighters were given a military burial in flag-draped coffins with family as well as government and military officials in attendance.
Sunday, July 5 also marked the 58th anniversary of Algeria’s regaining its independence from the Republic of France. On July 5, 1830, France invaded, captured and declared Algeria a department of the nation of France.
The returned skulls belonged to two dozen fighters who were members of Algeria’s resistance movement that were killed and decapitated during the mid-19th-Century conflict. Among the key figures repatriated are Sheikh Bouzian, Bou Amar Ben Kedida and Si Mokhtar Ben Kouider Al Titraoui.
The announcement of their return was made last Thursday by Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune.
The fighters’ remains had been kept in vaults at the Musee de l’Homme, or Museum of Mankind, in Paris. The museum specializes in anthropology.
A military ceremony took place on the tarmac at Houari Boumediene Airport to receive planes carrying the skulls. President Tebboune welcomed them, remarking in a speech that the fighters “had been deprived of their natural and human right to be buried for more than 170 years.”
The skulls were then moved prior to burial to the Palace of Culture, where they were placed on display.
At burial, an elite unit of the Republican Guard presented arms while the coffins were interred at El Alia Cemetery in the capital Algiers. Afterwards, President Tebboune handed the flags that had covered the coffins to young cadets from various military academies as a symbolic gesture for them to remember the sacrifices made by their forebears.
It was not until the Algerian War, which lasted from Nov. 1, 1954 to March 19, 1962, that Algeria fully regained its status as an independent nation. Fought between French forces and the Algerian National Front (FLN), the bloodshed was said to have claimed some 1.5 million Algerian lives. Freedom was finally had on July 5, 1962, thus Sunday’s notable date as well.
Both Algerian and French academics have long anticipated this day, campaigning for many years for the return of a total 37 skulls housed at the Musee de l’Homme.
President Tebboune is also looking toward Algeria’s future with France and for the latter to tender a more formal apology for its colonial transgressions.
“We have already had half-apologies. The next step is needed; we await it,” he said Saturday in an interview on France24 TV.
Despite past resistance from French executives, Algeria now has a friend in Emmanuel Macron. He is the first leader of the Republic to recognize the need for repatriation of the mortal remains of these Algerians and has spoken out during his tenure against France’s colonial past, even saying during one campaign speech that France’s colonization of Algeria was a “crime against humanity”.
Just over 4 million people of Algerian descent now make their home in France. Nowhere is their presence felt more than in the capital: Every Sunday since Feb. 16, 2019, Algerians have taken to their “Revolution of Smiles,” a peaceful march from the Place de la Republique to the Place de la Bastille wherein demonstrators give voice to their need for changes in the Algerian government.
The Sunday protests were initially launched as a reaction to former President Abdelaziz Bouteflika announcing his candidacy for a fifth term. By April 2, Bouteflika had resigned, and many of his colleagues had been arrested. By December, President Tebboune had been voted into office.
Franco-Algerian political leaders throughout France have also raised issues surrounding the homeland that need addressing. One such figure is Sofiane Ghozelane, deputy mayor of Pontault-Combault, a commune of the Ile-de-France region. Early last spring, he joined other Franco-Algerian leaders and activists in penning an open letter to President Macron urging him to take a stronger stance against the current Algerian government.
“France has to take a clearer stance, as at present, it is neither interference nor indifference,” Ghozelane said to France24 TV.
He and his compatriots’ letter presses the point though that Macron’s administration veers more toward indifference, to “the desire of the Algerian people to turn a page in their history.”
In an official statement to Agence France Presse, the French government said that repatriating these skulls was a gesture of “friendship” and an attempt to “reconcile the memories of the French and Algerian people.”
France has declared that it doesn’t want to meddle in the affairs of its former colony but to let Algeria take its own course. In a statement to BFMTV in March last year, Minister of Foreign Affairs Jean-Yves Le Drian said “France will not interfere…Algerians are showing great dignity. France will stand by Algeria, but it’s Algeria that will decide its future, not France.”
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