It is one of the few places in Algeria where the memory of the Jews is perpetuated, whose presence in the country dates back to their expulsion from Spain with the Muslims from the 14th century. Located below the Notre-Dame d’Afrique basilica which dominates the large bay of Algiers, the European cemetery of Saint-Eugene is a place of history and memory.
These 18 hectares house the tombs and burials of some 135,000 European deceased. Emmanuel Macron intended to visit him in the company of the Chief Rabbi of France Haïm Korsia, whose presence, a first since independence in 1962, would have been a strong symbol and one of the key moments of this stay in Algeria. The Algerian authorities had given their agreement and issued a visa to this man whose parents were born in Oran and Tlemcen.
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Tested positive for Covid on August 25, at the start of the presidential trip, the Chief Rabbi was ultimately unable to make the trip. Its presence in Algeria and in the cemetery of Saint-Eugène was meant to convey the message of those Jews of Algeria who wish to return there to pray at the graves of their ancestors.
This message is finally Emmanuel Macron and his guests, Benjamin Stora, Alexandre Arcady and Jacques Attali (all three born in Algeria and of the Jewish faith), who relayed it on August 26, during the tribute to French fighters dead during both wars world.
Hidden Jewish History
Accompanied by the Archbishop of Algiers, Jean-Paul Vesco, Macron also visited the Jewish square where some graves date back to the 14th century. A short stop is essential in front of the tomb of the actor Roger Hanin, born Levy, who died in 2015, and who spent part of his childhood in the district of Bab el-Oued, not far from this cemetery.
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Although he left Algeria at the end of the 1940s, Roger Hanin never broke ties with this country where his ancestors had settled at the end of the 19th century. His attachment to Algeria was such that he wished to be buried there alongside his father.
If the tomb of Roger Hanin symbolizes the attachment of the Jews to this land, the mausoleum of the rabbis Ribach and Rachbats, where Emmanuel Macron also gathered, bears witness to the history of the Jewish community of Algeria. It had some 25,000 members at the start of the French conquest in 1830. The automatic obtaining of French nationality for Algerian Jews under the Crémieux decree of 1870 contributed to the lasting divorce between Jews and Muslims. from Algeria.
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Originally from Spain, Ribach and Rachbats fled that country like thousands of other Jews and Muslims to escape the Catholic persecutions of 1391. The two scholars are considered the founders of the Jewish community in Algeria. “Algerian Jewish history is completely hidden from the national narrative,” observes one of Macron’s companions on this trip. This stop at the Saint-Eugène cemetery is a moment of meditation but also a way of bringing to light this common memory between Jews, Christians and Muslims. »
Since Valéry Giscard d’Estaing’s historic visit to Algeria in April 1975, never has a French president visited a mosque. For his second visit after that of December 2017, Emmanuel Macron made a point of stopping at the Great Mosque of Algiers, a monumental work built under the era of former President Bouteflika for more than 1.2 billion euros.
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In the presence of the Algerian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ramtane Lamamra, and the rector of the mosque, Mohamed Mamoune El Kacimi El Hassini, Emmanuel Macron wandered through the mysteries of this religious monument which is still the subject of criticism for its cost. Even if the French head of state did not speak at the end of this brief visit, his visit to this place of worship marked the spirits.
“We had to get out of the Islamophobic Macron cliché or of France which fights against Islam, confides one of the members of the French delegation. Here again, his visit to the Grand Mosque is a message of tolerance and a way of insisting on the dialogue between the three monotheistic religions. »
The Santa Cruz symbol
After the Jews and the Muslims, he had to therefore mark a new stage of this ecumenical journey at the chapel of Santa Cruz d’Oran. On the promontory which dominates the city, three symbols of Oran stand side by side: a Muslim mausoleum, the fort of Santa Cruz erected by the Spaniards between 1577 and 1604, as well as a Christian chapel whose view embraces the city and the sea.
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For the visit of the chapel, the French president was accompanied by two guides who know how to tell the memory of these places, marked by the tragic summer of 1849: the writer and journalist Kamel Daoud, and the archbishop of Algiers, Jean-Paul Vesco.
This summer of 1849 was particularly hot in Oran. Cholera spreads and decimates a good part of the population. In an attempt to curb the epidemic, General Aimable Pelissier, commander of the French forces and sadly famous for the smoking of the Dahra caves in 1845, suggested to the vicar of Algiers to organize processions towards Mount Santa Cruz and to install a statue of the Virgin to “throw cholera into the sea”.
During the procession of November 4, 1849, a torrential rain fell on the city, washing it of cholera, which would eventually disappear a few days later. To give thanks for what then passes for a miracle, a chapel is built which will become a place of pilgrimage for Christians, but also of meditation and walks for the Oran population.
Legend has it that sterile women from Oran and the surrounding area go to this chapel to pray to the Virgin in order to fertilize their wombs. “There is an attachment of the Oran people to this chapel because it represents a part of our history, explains Saïd Sayoud, wali of Oran. Algerians want to show that they can live with everyone regardless of race and religion. »
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It was in this chapel that the beatification ceremony of nineteen Catholic religious was held in 2018, including the seven monks of the monastery of Tibhirine who were killed during the black decade.
Sister Clara, a nearly 80-year-old nun and retired teacher, wanted to be present to approach Emmanuel Macron. The story of this nun with a frail body but sparkling eyes is intertwined with that of France and Algeria. His great-grandparents left Alsace when the region was ceded to the Germans in 1871. The family then settled in the region of Sétif, in eastern Algeria.
Sister Clara has lived in Oran for forty years. Although her whole family left Algeria in 1962, she insisted on staying there. “I am French but I am fully Algerian,” she says shyly. When she tells Macron her story and her forthcoming departure for Nancy as her superiors wish, the president throws at her: ” You will come back! »