PARIS — The opening speech on the opening day of the new French parliament wasn’t quite what was expected — an emotional paean to when Algeria was a French colony.
According to the rules of the National Assembly, the oldest lawmaker chairs the first session of a new parliament — that was José Gonzalez, 79 years old and a newly elected MP from the far-right National Rally.
“To see you gathered side by side … beyond all our differences, is a symbol of French unity. This symbol of unity touches the child of a remote France that I am, torn from his native land and blown to the coasts of Provence by the winds of history in 1962. I left there a part of my France and many friends. I am a man who has seen his soul forever bruised,” he said before becoming overcome with emotion. He was given a round of applause by some other MPs.
Gonzalez was born and raised in Oran, when Algeria was still a French colony. As many other so-called pieds-noirs — people of French and European descent born in Algeria during the colonial period — he moved to France in 1962 when Algeria became independent. During the Algerian War, the pieds-noirs predominantly supported French colonial rule.
After his speech, according to Libération, Gonzalez told journalists to “come with me to Algeria in the Djebel region, I will find many Algerians who will tell you: When are you [the French] coming back?” He added that “I’m not here to judge whether the OAS committed crimes or not.”
The OAS (Organisation armée secrète) was a far-right paramilitary organization that carried out attacks, bombings and assassinations during the Algerian War. Their stated goal was to keep Algeria under French colonial rule. Some former members of the OAS joined the National Front — now the National Rally — in the 1970s.
The question of repentance and recognition of the violence of colonial times is a highly sensitive topic in France.
In 2021, a report about the colonization of Algeria written by the historian Benjamin Stora was released that recommended a series of steps to help heal open historical wounds with Algeria. The official French line is not to formally apologize for the crimes committed in Algeria, but to acknowledge the violence of colonization.
Gonzalez’s speech was praised by the president of the National Rally, Jordan Bardella. However, many left-wing MPs were furious. Louis Boyard, the youngest MP in the National Assembly, even refused to shake hands with the National Rally MPs who turned up to vote.
“The National Rally eldest member of the session, nostalgic for the OAS assassins, shamelessly and tearfully evokes the memory of French Algeria under a round of applause. An insult to our history and to our parents. A day of SHAME,” wrote Green MP Sabrina Sabaihi on Twitter.
The controversy risks complicating National Rally leader Marine Le Pen’s efforts to bring her far-right party into the mainstream. Le Pen has reportedly been coaching her 89 new MPs on how to behave well.