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Macron asks for ‘forgiveness’ for France over abandoning Algerian Harkis

French President Emmanuel Macron on Monday asked for 'forgiveness' on behalf of his country for abandoning Algerians who fought alongside France in their country's war of independence.

Macron asks for 'forgiveness' for France over abandoning Algerian Harkis
Photo: Ludovic Marin/AFP

Hundreds of thousands of Algerian Muslims – known as Harkis – served as auxiliaries in the French army in the war that pitted Algerian independence fighters against their French colonial masters from 1954 to 1962.

At the end of the war – waged on both sides with extreme brutality including widespread torture – the French government left the Harkis to fend for themselves, despite earlier promises that it would look after them.

Trapped in Algeria, many were massacred as the country’s new masters took brutal revenge.

READ ALSO Who are the Harkis and why are they still a sore subject in France?

Thousand others were placed in camps in France, often with their families, in degrading and traumatising conditions.

Successive French presidents had already begun owning up to the betrayal of the Algerian Muslim fighters.

Macron’s predecessor Francois Hollande in 2016 accepted “the responsibilities of French governments in the abandonment of the Harkis”.

But Macron’s meeting on Monday with 300 people, mostly surviving Harkis and their families, is to mark “a new step” towards a full recognition of France’s responsibility for their suffering, his office said.

The meeting comes only days before national Harki day, which has been observed since 2003 – especially in southern France where many of the surviving fighters settled after the war.

Their political sympathies often lie with the nationalist right whose leader, Marine Le Pen, is the frontrunner among Macron’s rivals in France’s presidential election next spring.

“The president believes that the work accomplished over the past 60 years is important but that a new step is necessary in terms of recognising the failures towards the Harkis, but also the failure of the French republic to live up to its own standards,” Macron’s office said.

The history of the Harkis could not be separated from the history of France, it said.

Authorities have in the past allowed a number of legal procedures to go ahead for the Harkis and their families to claim damages from France.

But Harki organisations want an official recognition of their treatment to be enshrined in a law by the end of the year, they said in an open letter to Macron.

“We hope that you will be the one to end 60 years of a certain hypocrisy by which the abandoning of the Harkis is recognised in speeches, but not in the law,” they said.

The associations also want approved payouts to be increased.

Macron’s initiative comes over a year after he tasked historian Benjamin Stora with assessing how France has dealt with its colonial legacy in Algeria.

The report, submitted in January, made a series of recommendations including owning up to the murder of a prominent Algerian independence figure and creating a “memory and truth commission”.

Macron has already spoken out on a number of France’s unresolved colonial legacies, including nuclear testing in Polynesia, its role in the Rwandan genocide and war crimes in Algeria.

Before the end of his mandate he is expected to attend ceremonies marking the anniversaries of two key events still weighing on French-Algerian relations: the brutal repression of a demonstration of Algerians on October 17th, 1961, by Paris police who beat protesters to death or drowned them in the river Seine, and the signing of the Evian accords on March 18th, 1962, which ended the war of independence.

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READER QUESTIONS

Reader question: Why does secular France have Catholic holidays?

You might not have thought about it too much as you enjoyed an extra day off work, but it is perhaps unexpected that France - proudly secular since 1905 - has so many public holidays based around Catholic festivals.

Reader question: Why does secular France have Catholic holidays?

Reader question: Why does France have Catholic holidays like Ascension, Assumption and Toussaints? I thought it was supposed to be a secular republic?

The French Republic is very proud of its secular principles but yet as some readers observed, many public holidays are linked to Catholic celebrations, a reminder of its religious history.

Roughly half of the public holidays in France represent Catholic events: Easter, Ascension (May 26th), Assumption (August 15th), Pentecost (for some people), All Saints’ day (November 1st) and of course Christmas.

If you live in Alsace-Moselle (formerly Alsace-Lorraine) you get two extra holidays, both religious ones – Good Friday (the Friday before Easter) and St Stephen’s Day (December 26th) – more on why that is later.

France’s secular stance takes its roots in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen of 1789 but was formally codified into law in 1905. 

France does not recognise, pay or subsidise any religion. So French local and national governments are not allowed to finance churches, mosques, synagogues or temples, and religious symbolism is not allowed in State buildings or for representatives of the State.

It is these rules that mean that, for example, French primary schools don’t perform nativity plays at Christmas and French female police officers are not permitted to wear the Muslim headscarf while on duty.

EXPLAINED What does France’s secularism really mean?

The flip side of this is that freedom of worship is also protected in the 1905 law, and everyone is allowed to practice whatever religion they choose in their private life.

The only exception to the secular rules are the three departments of Alsace-Moselle. When the 1905 law was passed the region was part of Germany and only became French again at the end of World War I. As part of the compromise agreed, today bishops, priests, rabbis and pastors have the status of civil servants and the state pays for the maintenance of religious buildings. Religious education in public schools is also preserved.

So all that seems to pretty strongly suggest that Catholic festivals should play no part in France’s holiday calendar and only the secular events – such as the Fête nationale on July 14th or VE Day on May 8th – should remain.

However, by the time secularism was formally codified into law in 1905 there was already a fairly fixed calendar of holidays and festivals – although this had already been slimmed down under the Napoleonic government in 1802 – and suddenly axing popular festivals was likely to go down pretty badly with the population at large.

Essentially then, this was a pragmatic compromise between tradition and secularism and over the years politicians have been understandably reluctant to tell the French they must lose their holidays.

But it’s noticeable that all the religious festivals in the calendar are Christian ones, and while this may reflect France’s history it’s not so representative of the current demographics, where an estimated 10 percent of the population either practice the Muslim faith or have a Muslim family background.

So could we see a scenario when we knock Ascension on the head but make Eid a public holiday?

It’s theoretically possible – in 2015 the French parliament voted through an amendment that would allow the départments of France’s Overseas Territories (Martinique, Gaudeloupe, Mayotte, Réunion and French Guiana) to switch a Catholic bank holiday for another religious celebration to suit different faiths in the local population.

However none of the overseas départements has yet made that move. 

A fresh amendment would be required to make the same move in mainland France, and there appears to be little political appetite for that at present.

What are France’s public holidays? 

  • January 1st: New Year’s Day
  • Good Friday (the Friday before Easter Monday, only a holiday in Alsace-Lorraine)
  • Easter Monday (movable date)
  • May 1st: May Day
  • May 8th: VE Day
  • May 26th: Ascension Day
  • Pentecost (movable date and no longer an official holiday)
  • July 14th – Bastille Day
  • August 15th – Assumption
  • November 1st – All Saints
  • November 11th – Armistice Day
  • December 25th – Christmas
  • December 26th – St Stephen’s Day (only a holiday in Alsace-Lorraine)
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