French presidential frontrunner Emmanuel Macron on Friday stepped up his condemnation of France’s colonial past in Algeria, rejecting fierce criticism from the country’s conservative right.
Touching on one of the most sensitive periods of French history, Mr Macron said in an interview with leading centre-right daily Le Figaro that the 132-year colonisation of Algeria involved “crimes and acts of barbarism” that would today be acknowledged as “crimes against humanity”.
These echoes comments made earlier in the week on a visit to Algiers, where Mr Macron called on France to apologise for past crimes, particularly those committed in the bloody Algerian war of independence that ended in 1962.
Alleged torture and massacres by the French government during the eight-year civil war remains a hugely polarising issue on both sides of the Mediterranean and in French politics, with French authorities long refusing to apologise.
Mr Macron’s intervention on Algeria was his most striking since the 39-year-old former banker surged into a position as a favourite to win the presidential election in May. The independent candidate, a former economy minister, has taken advantage of a loss of support for François Fillon, the centre-right candidate, who has been embroiled in an investigation over his use of state funds to employ his wife and family.
Mr Macron’s suggestion that France should say sorry drew a sharp rebuke from his rivals on the political right. Mr Fillon condemned a “hatred of our history,” and a “perpetual repentance that is unworthy of a candidate for the presidency of the republic”.
Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right Front National, said on Facebook: “Is there anything worse when you want to become president than going abroad to accuse the country you want to lead of crimes against humanity?”
In recent years France has taken steps to smooth relations with Algeria, which says that 1.5m people were killed during the civil war.
President François Hollande in 2012 recognised the “bloody repression” of Algerian protesters by police in Paris in October 1961 and also France’s poor treatment of the Harkis — Algerians who had fought for France. But he stopped short of apologising.
French rightwing politicians have in the past tried to move in the other direction. In 2005, the Republican party passed a law recognising “the positive role of the French presence overseas”, although it was later overturned, while Mr Fillon last year likened France’s colonial past to a “cultural exchange”.
Thomas Guénolé, a lecturer at Sciences-Po, said that Mr Macron’s comments could appeal to voters of North African origin, the second-largest ethnic group in France.
“The logic of calling colonialism a crime against humanity is that the slogan will appeal to the segment of French voters with Maghreb origins,” he said, adding that it was part of selling the “Macron brand” as widely as possible.
This is not the first time Mr Macron has tackled the controversial issue of Algeria. Last year, he told French magazine Le Point: “Yes, there was torture in Algeria, but there was also the emergence of a state, or wealth, of a middle class . . . This is the reality of colonialism. There are elements of civilisation and elements of barbarism.”
His comments on Friday come as the latest poll, by Sciences Po study centre Cevipof, showed Mr Macron on course to take 23 per cent of the votes in the first round of the presidential election in April, compared with just 18.5 per cent for Mr Fillon.
This would put Mr Macron in the second round run-off in May with far-right candidate Ms Le Pen, who is expected to take 26 per cent of the votes in the first round. Mr Macron would then be expected to beat Le Pen in the second round, say the polls.
However, half of voters say they have not made a final decision.
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