It would be consistent with the nationalistic mood of the times if, whatever the outcome of the election, France seeks to tilt the rear view mirror to see its colonial past in rose tinted hues, Geoff Kitney writes.
The future of France will be shaped by the outcome of the French presidential election but so, too, may the past.
As much of the world breathes a sigh of relief that Emmanuel Macron has won the first round and seems certain to defeat Marine Le Pen for the presidency, the immediate reaction is to see this as France voting for common sense and for maintaining its place on the global stage, as a voice for justice and for reason.
But is it an unqualified victory for “internationalist” France?
Does the rest of the world see the France that now seems certain to emerge from the presidential election under moderate, outward looking leadership as likely to be a France which is a friend to all?
There are, in fact, parts of the world where there will still be a wariness about where France is headed – places where French history has left a big imprint.
One of the key elements of the populist campaigns of both Front National (FN) leader Marine Le Pen and conservative candidate François Fillon of Les Républicains (LR) was their blatant attempts to glorify France’s inglorious colonial past.
A key question for the future is to what extent this sentiment might persist beyond the election, as part of French political culture.
At first glance, it would seem that this will be a non-issue in the event that Macron becomes president. But there are some reasons for not being so sure.
Let’s look at the background.
In many places where French colonial influence prevailed there are feelings that France should continue to acknowledge that its colonial-era legacies are still painfully felt
From as far back as the 16th century and as recently as the mid-1990s, French interests were often pursued beyond France’s borders with little regard for the interests of local populations.
The legacies of French rule in its colonies, protectorates and mandated territories are, in many cases, still painful for the indigenous populations.
In French New Caledonia, for example, the indigenous Melanesian (Kanak) population desperately wants to regain its independence after more than 160 years of French often troubled rule. A referendum will be held next year but both Macron and Le Pen have said they are opposed to independence.
There are remarkably fresh legacies that still generate sourness towards France elsewhere in the South Pacific where it is easy to find voices critical of French arrogance over its nuclear testing at Mururoa Atoll which persisted despite regional and international protests until just 20 years ago.
Ask any middle-aged Australian what are the first things that come to mind when they think about France and there is a good chance they will say “nuclear tests”.
Travel through south-east Asia, to Vietnam, Laos or Cambodia and, along with the still beautifully preserved architecture of French colonial occupation, you will easily find deep reservoirs of resentment about the harsh colonial regimes in the century before the Indochina wars terminated French power in the region in the 1950s.
In many places where French colonial influence prevailed there are feelings that France should continue to acknowledge that its colonial-era legacies are still painfully felt.
But, instead, what appears to be happening is that French sentiment is tipping the other way. The political currents are moving in favour of glorifying rather than apologising for the French colonial past and acting to deal with its legacies.
This is not simply a French phenomenon.
In recent decades conservative thinkers in a number of countries where colonial influence had long been seen as negatives have attempted to shift the balance back towards the positives.
In Australia, in the mid-1990s, there was a sharp shift in the conversation about colonial impact on the indigenous aboriginal population. Conservatives adopted a slogan for the cause – it was time to end the “black arm-band” view of European settlement of Australia.
While they acknowledged that bad things had happened as a result of European settlement of Australia, they insisted that there was much more that was good about it and that today’s generations should not have to apologise for the sins and errors of earlier European settlers.
As conservative political parties gained ascendency in Australia from the mid-nineties, this view has gained a hold on the national political debate. Today, the celebration of Australia’s colonial past is regarded by many conservatives as a national duty.
Aboriginal disadvantage – still extreme in much of Australian society – is seen as an unrelated issue, and yet the denial of this history further deepens the sense of grievance that separates aboriginal populations from the wider community.
In recent decades conservative thinkers in a number of countries where colonial influence had long been seen as negatives have attempted to shift the balance back towards the positives
In France a similar process of denial of history has been gradually gaining momentum during the election campaign.
It was given its most forceful articulation by Marine Le Pen, who took up with vigour her father Jean-Marie Le Pen’s campaigns to glorify French colonial history.
Commentators argue that the right-wing-led campaigns to emphasise the positives of France’s colonial past have grown in intensity in direct and opposite reaction to the argument from the left that, to a large degree, France’s social problems can be linked to France’s treatment of its colonies and those who migrated to France from those French territories.
Colonial “revisionism” appears to have gained traction.
François Fillon, for example, strongly criticised the teaching of French school students to be “ashamed” of France’s treatment of its colonial past. He wants the curriculum changed to give a more positive view of France’s history and to present colonialism as “the sharing of culture”.
While it might have seemed that this opened an opportunity for those in the centre and on the left of French politics to exploit the moderate, middle ground on this issue – and initially Emmanuel Macron did this – there is some unsettling evidence that the conservative narrative has gained traction across the political spectrum.
After a strong right-wing reaction to comments earlier this year in which Macron labeled French colonisation of North Africa as “a crime against humanity”, he recently shifted his position, saying that he regretted any offence he might have caused to former North African French settlers.
Critics have questioned what his real beliefs are and suggested that this was a sign that, as President, Macron would judge the political mood on France’s past before defining his own position.
But it would be consistent with the nationalistic mood of the times if, whatever the outcome of the election, France seeks to tilt the rear view mirror to see its colonial past in rose tinted hues.
Macron says he wants to govern for all of France and to do this he will have to reach out to all of France, including the Le Pen support base – which is significant. That would require some degree of acknowledgement of the complaints that emanate from that base.
What form that might take is impossible to say at this stage.
But to the extent that this blinds French policy makers to the historical connections to the causes of, and the solutions to, the deep problems of its dysfunctional, post-colonial immigrant society, this would be an unfortunate outcome.
The rest of the world will be watching, because it knows that France’s problems are the world’s problems too.