Sixty years ago yesterday saw one of the worst cases of political violence in western Europe since the Second World War, when dozens of demonstrators against the French war in Algeria were shot, beaten to death or drowned by Parisian police – a massacre that remained almost completely unacknowledged until this century. Its chief architect, then chief of police Maurice Papon, was later jailed, but for being a wartime collaborator rather than for his later activities.
French president Emmanuel Macron, facing re-election in just under six months time, paid homage at the weekend to the victims, observing a minute’s silence and describing the crime as “inexcusable”. He is not the first president to acknowledge France’s culpability – his predecessor, François Hollande, did so in 2012 – but his language was considerably more explicit.
But on the French news that was only the second story for the night. The leading story was another anniversary: twelve months since the murder of Samuel Paty, a schoolteacher in the suburbs of Paris, who was stabbed and beheaded by a Chechen immigrant after apparently showing his students cartoons of the prophet Muhammad in a class on freedom of speech.
Paty has become a martyr for the beloved French causes of free speech and secularism. His murder provoked a raft of measures from the Macron government supposed to counter Islamic extremism, and prime minister Jean Castex honored him at a ceremony on Saturday.
Logically, of course, there’s nothing inconsistent about commemorating both Paty and the victims of October 1961. Quite the contrary: both were the targets of ideological intolerance, killed for exercising their right to freedom of expression. But in the tribal politics of France they pull in opposite directions, and Macron is the one tasked with reconciling them.
As I mentioned six months ago, opposition to French decolonisation in Algeria was a formative experience for the French far right. The fact that Macron has been more forthright than any of his predecessors in owning up to the evils of colonialism is an important factor in the far right’s hostility to him.
But there are limits to how far he will go, in part at least because he wants to avoid alienating more voters on his right flank. Fears of Islamic extremism, stoked by events such as Paty’s murder and the terror attacks of November 2015, are very real, and no French government wants to be seen as soft on the issue. Hence things like Macron’s decision earlier this month to cut back on immigration from North Africa, which provoked a diplomatic row with Algeria – which the 1961 commemoration may in turn have been intended to help soothe.*
The distinctive thing about French politics is that the deepest ideological divide runs not between left and right, but between the far right and the rest of the spectrum. Centre-right, centre and left are all in their different ways heirs of the French Revolution and of the resistance to Nazi occupation, and it was General de Gaulle, not the centre-left, who eventually conceded Algerian independence and earned the undying hatred of the far right. Many on the far right now want to paint themselves as Gaullists, but any mention of Algeria threatens to derail that project.
For Macron it is a double game. As president, he is jealous of France’s honor; he wants to uphold both historical pride and moral clarity, which often sit uneasily together. But he is also a politician, and he wants to ensure that if the weekend’s two anniversaries symbolise a political pincer movement, it will be his rivals on the centre-right who are caught in it rather than himself.
* It’s also only fair to point out that the faults in the Algerian war were not all on one side: it was a brutal affair all round, and the Algerians were also guilty of atrocities, for which no sort of recompense has ever been made.