French president Emmanuel Macron said last week that France would offer “no repentance or apologies” for the colonisation of Algeria or the eight-year war it waged against Algerian independence, in which perhaps a million people died.
This decision no doubt is partly motivated by Macron’s bid for re-election in 2022. He will be running against strong opposition from his right, from Marine Le Pen of the fascist National Rally and the conservative Republicans.
But there’s more involved. Macron is waging an increasingly aggressive and militarised campaign of repression both within France and externally.
So defensive is he about these policies that when Mehreen Khan wrote a critical article in November, Macron forced the Financial Times newspaper to take it down and publish his reply.
But even the Financial Times drew the line at a new “global security law” that his government rushed through the French Parliament a few weeks later. An editorial denounced “Macron’s illiberal plan to protect the French police” by making it a crime to publicly identify any police officers.
This follows several years of violent police attacks on protests by the Gilets Jaunes (Yellow Vests), trade unionists, anti-racist activists and students. Hundreds of thousands demonstrated against the new law on 28 November.
One of its most sinister aspects is the encouragement it gives to greater domestic use of surveillance technologies such as drones, CCTV and facial recognition.
In an important article the French Marxist Claude Serfati writes, “The population living on the French territory and especially in the inner-city suburbs now finds itself facing a disquieting alliance between a highly experienced repressive bureaucratic apparatus and perfected surveillance technologies.”
But Serfati argues that these policies must be seen in the context of the broader strategy of French imperialism.
Unable to compete effectively in civilian industries with German or East Asian firms, French capitalism has tended for many decades to specialise in arms and aerospace. This has been accompanied by the projection of military power abroad, especially in so-called “Françafrique”, the informal empire president Charles de Gaulle and his adviser Jacques Foccart imposed on France’s African ex-colonies.
According to Serfati, successive French governments have doubled down on this strategy. This has left Germany economically dominant in the European Union and, with Brexit, France its biggest military power.
The spread of Islamist radicalism has been used to justify more military interventions, notably in Mali.
When Macron became president in 2017 he proclaimed the end of Françafrique. But today there are still 5,100 French troops in ten bases scattered across West and Central Africa. In his letter to the Financial Times, Macron boasts, “The French army shows exemplary courage in the Sahel and its action against terrorist groups benefits all of Europe.”
He goes on to say that “there are breeding grounds for terrorists in France”. Macron and his government have been, in effect, branding France’s Muslim population as the enemy within.
But they are also targeting those protesting against economic policies that force working people to bear the costs of the pandemic. The national education minister linked the two, denouncing “Islamo-leftism”.
Serfati warns that the same military used in neocolonial interventions in Africa is increasingly being deployed to police the French population.
Macron has used the Defence Council to co-ordinate the government response to the pandemic. He has also sought to project French power in the Mediterranean, in particular by backing the alliance of Greek, southern Cyprus, and Israel against Turkey.
But Macron runs the risk of being outflanked by Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Turkish intervention in Libya tipped the balance in favour of the UN-backed government in Tripoli, which France had being trying to overthrow. And Turkey is increasingly active in the rest of Africa, more than tripling the number of embassies and offering trade and aid. Macron’s pursuit of imperial grandeur faces internal resistance and external competition.