Foreign Policy

Why Is It So Hard to Say "Sorry" in French?

As Algeria kicks off festivities for the 50th anniversary of its independence from France this week, all eyes are on the former colonial power's new president, François Hollande. Nine countries asked to join the party in Algiers — including the United States, which conveyed American gratitude to three-term President Abdelaziz Bouteflika for Algeria's "key role" in global counterterrorism and regional security. The French government sent no representatives to the opening ceremony, held in Algiers on July 5, but said that Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius would travel there soon to advance a late-summer visit by Hollande, raising expectations that a turning point is near in the prickly post-colonial relationship.

Some anticipate that Hollande could become the first French president to apologize formally for more than a century of colonization and hundreds of thousands of war dead beteen 1830 to 1962. Officials in Algiers say a full and frank apology is long overdue. Should they expect normalization of Franco-Algerian relations from a leader who billed himself in the campaign as "président normal" — in stark contrast to his predecessor, the frenetic Nicolas Sarkozy?

Hollande is the first French president with an explicitly post-colonial mindset. He was 10 weeks old when Algeria's National Liberation Front (FLN) took up arms against French occupation. His predecessor, Sarkozy, may be a year younger, but during his presidency he had no time for what he called "eternal repentance." And his party colleagues in parliament even passed a law praising colonialism's "positive role."

Hollande, on the other hand, has long been on conciliatory and friendly terms with Algeria. As a student, he interned in the French embassy there in 1978, and he returned to Algiers as a guest of the ruling FLN while he was Socialist Party secretary in 2006, where he was granted a lengthy meeting with Bouteflika. Two weeks after declaring his presidential candidacy in December 2010, Hollande returned to meet with the father of Algerian independence, Ahmed Ben Bella.

Read the rest of the article in Foreign Policy.