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.
During those visits, Hollande forcefully condemned French colonialism as "an inequitable and oppressive system" that "must be condemned without reservation." The day he received his party's nomination, Oct. 17, 2011, Hollande participated in a memorial for Algerian victims of French police 50 years earlier. And at an unusual moment in late April -- just one week before his runoff against Sarkozy -- he dispatched a former justice minister, born to French parents in Algeria, to repeat his pledge to resolve all past disputes.
Nonetheless, a straightforward apology faces two serious hurdles.
First, Hollande must sort through complex emotions in France. The French were not alone in the scramble for North Africa. Their military fought in the Algerian war of independence for more than twice as long as it did for France's own liberation during World War II. In 1962, when the French army withdrew, nearly a million settlers were forced to evacuate the only homes they knew. The settlers felt abandoned, and those who stayed behind were subject to kidnappings and disappearances. Some of those nostalgic for l'Algérie française included Hollande's own father, a local politician who supported a right-wing, pro-colonial presidential candidate in 1965. One recent political profile concludes that Hollande "constructed his political identity in rejection of his father's own choices."