Does France’s colonial past hold answers to today's problems of national identity?

·6-min read

How much of today’s issues in France can be explained by history? A lot, says one historian, who argues that teaching and accepting the country’s colonial past will help redefine the French concept of universalism to embrace all French citizens today.

France has long refused to face its colonial past, focusing education on the “benefits” of colonialism. Emmanuel Macron, during his presidential campaign, called France's colonisation of Algeria a "crime against humanity", angering critics who accused him of badmouthing France.

Historian Christelle Taraud says that French colonialism – notably of the Second Empire, which started with the conquering of Algiers in 1830, and spread throughout north and sub-Saharan Africa and Asia – explains today’s crisis with French identity.

Acknowledging it would help support the country's universalist ideals, she argues: “In order to be a unified people, it’s necessary to 'write a new past'. Especially in France, because history in France, especially the French Revolution, is very important, much more than in other European countries.”

RFI spoke to her about her vision of an “inclusive" history that recognises the importance of the colonial population inside the history of France.

This interview is part of the Spotlight on France podcast.

RFI: A lot of European countries colonised other countries throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. What is the French specificity?

Christelle Taraud: The major difference is the French question of universalism and laïcité (secularism). The French identity today is ‘liberté, égalité, fraternité’ (liberty, equality, fraternity), and laïcité, ideas that came from the French Revolution at the end of the 18th century.

And it's problematic because these ideas came up at same time as the start of the Second French Colonial Empire.

So you have the contradiction between the ideals of the French Revolution and the reality of colonial France, notably for the native people, which was exactly the contrary.

RFI: What does that contradiction do to the national identity?

CT: The difficulty is to organise this dichotomy. It's like you have two Frances: one in the mainland, with new symbols, new rights; and in another world, overseas, you have another France with absolutely different principals, rules and rights. That’s especially true for French Algeria.

RFI: So this dichotomy, or tension, existed for over 150 years, until the various independence movements in the 1960s. What are the impacts on France today?

CT: It's now a very important part of our identity, which we don't want to recognise, because it's difficult to accept in France that you have a difference between citizens.

In the 19th century, a French citizen was white and culturally Christian. But we had this very large empire with a non-white, and mostly non-culturally Christian population. So it became necessary to move the borders of citizenship. But that has been a difficult process, because we have a very important connection in France between citizenship and universalism.

We have this myth - because I think it's a myth - that everybody can represent everybody. Today we have a lot of discussions about the question of universalism and representation, and the difficulty is to understand that universalism should be much more inclusive - for women, for minorities, and of course for all the people who have this very important legacy of colonialism.

RFI: Talk about the Pieds-Noirs, the French people who were born in Algeria, in North Africa, who had to leave after independence and come back to mainland France. What has been the impact of their experience?

CT: The Pieds-Noirs exodus, as they call it, was very difficult. When the French government signed the Evian accords with the Algerian resistance, one of the difficult questions was the status of the Pieds-Noirs. Nobody wanted them.

The Algerians did not want them to stay, and when they returned to metropolitan France, they were received very, very badly. And you have to realise that it was probably the largest migration in the French context of the contemporary period.

RFI: How does this resentment manifest itself today in contemporary France?

CT: For most Pieds-Noirs, when you speak with them you understand that they feel like they are strangers in this country. And I think that’s an important key to understanding France of today. The Pieds-Noirs question is a very important part of the French identity, but nobody wants to hear that.

And then it is easy to say that racism in France comes from the Pieds-Noirs. It’s reductive.

RFI: Laïcité is one of the pillars of the French national identity, and the relationship to Islam is in the news a lot in France today. What is the legacy of colonialism on that?

CT: In the colonial context one of the forms of resistance was religion. It's really clear when you see the Algerian liberation movement: religion was the main weapon of resistance.

So you have this population that is built around the question of religion, which is also culture, of course. And they arrived in France with that. Most of the Algerians who live in France now arrived during the Algerian war and right after. And they arrived with an Islam that was a weapon of resistance, too.

But of course, a part of this population wanted to access to the French rights, too. And so the paradox is that now, when you see sociological studies about the integration of this population, you see that the children of these immigrants are absolutely integrated.

We’ve had a negative interpretation of this population, like it was just one population. But it's a very diverse community, and a very large part of it thinks that secularism, laïcité, is a good thing.

RFI: You have called for a ‘rewriting’ of France’s colonial history, and rethinking how it is taught and spoken about. How do you do that?

CT: The first step is equality. It’s necessary to write this story together. If we speak about French colonisation in Algeria, I think it's absolutely necessary to write the story of French Algeria with Algerian historians. It can't be only a history from one point of view.

So the first step is to collaborate, write books together, and speak about these books together.

And after this first step, we need to integrate the results of this work into the history curriculums of the French national education.

The third step is to have a space to illuminate this complex history. And that's why I have spoken about a museum of colonisation. I think a museum would be a very good tool to explain, to the majority of French population, the reality of colonisation.

This interview is part of the Spotlight on France podcast. Click here to listen to the episode.