Will Macron's new commission face up to all of France's colonial atrocities? | Femi Nylander and Rob Lemkin

Filming for the BBC in Niger, we were told by many Nigeriens that we were the first ever to come and ask about their history

During the French presidential campaign of 2017, Emmanuel Macron told a young Algerian that colonialism was “a crime against humanity”. His mailbox was immediately filled with angry letters from former French-Algerian settlers. A few weeks later, he retracted his remarks. “I’m sorry for wounding you, causing pain. I did not want to offend you,” he assured the colonists.

Last year, after George Floyd’s killing sparked widespread demonstrations against French police brutality, Macron commissioned the historian Benjamin Stora to compile a report on the memory of the colonisation of Algeria and the Algerian war. Stora handed in his study, France-Algeria: Painful Passions, in January, and it will be published as a book next month. It should be of interest not just to young people with an Algerian connection, said the president, but to anyone whose parents are from a former French colony.

In the 147-page report, Stora uses the term “crime against humanity” only once, and that is simply to quote Macron’s retracted comments from 2017. Stora does use the words “repression” and “acts of violence”, but never “war crime”. He recommends (and Macron has accepted) the establishment of a “memories and truth” commission. But whose memories? And which truth?

While we were filming in the west African country Niger, the sultan of Birnin Konni told us about crimes against humanity committed during the 1899 French invasion (the subject of our BBC film, African Apocalypse). The French commander, Paul Voulet, had captured the sultan’s town, killing between 7,000 and 15,000 of its Hausa inhabitants. “It’s a crime that remains unacknowledged and unpunished,” the sultan told us. “If he had perpetrated this massacre today, he would have been taken to the international criminal court at The Hague.”

For five weeks, we followed Voulet’s trail of atrocities across Niger. It wasn’t hard. The country’s main highway traces Voulet’s route almost exactly. No one knows how many Africans Voulet and his men murdered as they sought to gain control of one of the last unclaimed parts of the continent after its division among the European powers at the Berlin Conference of 1884-85. It was certainly in the tens of thousands.

At virtually every town and village we stopped at, we met Nigeriens, old and young, keen to tell us about the day Voulet came. These stories have been preserved through the tradition of oral history as told by the griot storytellers, or through word of mouth. In many places, the Nigeriens told us we were the first ever to come and ask about their history. Passing through village after village became like a roll call of horror from colonial holocausts we in the west have forgotten or never even knew: Dioundiou, Tibiri, Matankari, Lougou, Koran-Kalgo.

“He found us rich and left us poor,” the sultan of Birnin Konni continued. So important did he consider this opportunity to reveal the story of his people that, when he heard that BBC film-makers were coming, he postponed his long-anticipated hajj pilgrimage to Mecca.

Voulet’s killing spree lasted about six months before his sickened African troops mutinied and shot him. His genocidal mission was covered up by the French authorities for decades. His excesses, which included routine mass decapitations and torture, were dismissed by contemporary press and politicians as the lunacy of one officer who had become deranged by the African sun. But that did not stop the French government claiming the land he had conquered.

Five years after Voulet’s death, British ministers “granted” the land to France in return for French-held tuna fishing rights off the coast of Newfoundland, 6,000 miles away in the North Atlantic. This is how today’s border between Niger and Nigeria was created. Such is the casual, grim surreality of colonialism.

And that is the point. For the Nigeriens we met on our journey, the story of Voulet was not just history: it was the beginning of their present. Practically everyone we met felt their country continued to be controlled by a force from afar. The UN human development index places Niger the lowest in the world.

Like 11 other African countries colonised by France – so-called Francafrique, a term Macron now rejects – Niger uses the CFA franc as its currency. CFA used to stand for Colonies Francaises d’Afrique (French Colonies of Africa). Now it’s been airbrushed into Communauté Financière Africaine (African Financial Community). Either way, each Francafrique government is still obliged to deposit at least 50% of its currency reserves with the French treasury. When independence was announced in 1960, it was 100%. And the Banque de France holds 85% of the gold owned by the Francafrique countries of West Africa.

Along our route, many Nigeriens spoke mournfully of la penetration coloniale (colonial penetration) – none more so than two middle-aged men who had spent their working lives in the French-controlled uranium mines of northern Niger. Nigerien uranium reportedly supplies the electricity for one in three lightbulbs in France, while much of Niger itself remains unelectrified. In the 1970s, Niger was paid a minimal amount for this uranium. Until 2014, a French company imported the uranium free of tax. The miners, Bija Bara and Abdou Haruna, are both sick from decades of unprotected exposure to raw, radioactive uranium. Most of their colleagues have died of uranium-related cancers. That’s what la penetration coloniale means to them.

These are just some of the “memories and truth” that should be reckoned with in Macron’s new commission.

But it should not just be a reckoning for France. Britain’s colonial history is equally replete with atrocities, cover-ups and continuing exploitation. As George Orwell wrote in 1948: “It is by no means certain that we can afford [our high standard of life] if we throw away the advantages we derive from colonial exploitation.” That is no less true today, and it’s a similar story for all the colonising countries of Europe.

It’s time they faced up to this past. Colonising countries should move beyond Macron’s memories and truth to a genuine process of truth and reconciliation. A process in which those affected can give evidence on the crimes that initiated and sustained colonialism, and that continue to blight communities of colour – both those in the formerly colonised world and those who have migrated to the west.

And out of that will inevitably come the controversial question of reparations – often seen as payment for the wrongs of previous generations, less often as a correction for the privileges and benefits those wrongs still bring today. It is a question we must all face – whether we are black, brown, or white – if we are to find a way of living together with justice and true respect for each other.

  • Femi Nylander is a writer, actor and activist, and Rob Lemkin is a documentary film-maker. Their film, African Apolcaypse, is showing on BFI Player.

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Femi Nylander and Rob Lemkin

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