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France tries to come to terms with colonial past in Algeria

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French president Emmanuel Macron will establish a “memories and truth” commission to address the history of France’s colonial past in Algeria, but has stopped short of issuing an official apology.

The commission was a central recommendation of a report presented to Mr Macron last week that marks another attempt to try to come to terms with one of the most sensitive periods of French history. 

Torture, disappearances and hundreds of thousands of deaths scarred the eight-year war that saw the establishment of the French Fifth Republic and led to Algeria’s independence in 1962. It remains a deeply divisive subject on both sides of the Mediterranean. 

France is home to millions of people with links to Algeria — including descendants of former French colonists and a large Muslim population — many of whom find themselves caught between competing identities. In Algeria, meanwhile, rebukes to Paris are a way for a regime rooted in the independence movement to shore up its legitimacy.

“I am surprised every time I see that young Algerians . . . hate France more than my parents, who lived through the suffering of colonisation,” said Kamel Daoud, an author and journalist living in Oran.

The report aimed at a “reconciliation of memories” between Algeria and France was written by historian Benjamin Stora, the child of a Jewish family that fled Algeria at independence.

Emmanuel Macron (right) and Benjamin Stora at the Élysée palace on Wednesday
Emmanuel Macron (right) and historian Benjamin Stora at the Élysée palace on Wednesday © Christian Hartmann/POOL/AFP/Getty
Abdelmadjid Tebboune said: ‘We have already had half apologies. The next step is needed . . . we await it.” © Ryad Kramdi/AFP/Getty

A reckoning with what took place during the war has been slow in coming in France. Algeria was long considered part of French soil rather than a colony and until 1999 the French parliament did not officially recognise the notion of an “Algerian war”. It was only afterwards, as Mr Stora puts it, that “memory began to speed up.” 

In 2003, on a state visit to Algeria, President Jaques Chirac called the war a “tragedy”. His successor Nicolas Sarkozy, in Constantine in 2007, talked of the “injustice” of the “colonial system”. And in 2012, President François Hollande acknowledged the “brutal” nature of the 132-year occupation.

As a presidential candidate in 2017, Mr Macron called colonisation a “crime against humanity”. And in 2018 he became the first French leader to acknowledge publicly the state’s role in torture during the war.

But, the Élysée said, an official apology remains off the table, despite Algerian demands. “We have already had half apologies. The next step is needed . . . we await it,” Abdelmadjid Tebboune, the Algerian president, told France 24, the French broadcaster, in July.

Apologising remains politically sensitive in France. “For the left and the right there is a feeling of wounded nationalism linked to what happened in Algeria,” said Dominique Reynié of the Fondapol think-tank.

The formative political experience for Jean-Marie Le Pen — who led the French far-right before ceding to his daughter, Marine — was serving as a paratrooper in Algeria.

Mr Stora, who will also head the commission, argued that “rather than ‘repentance’, France should . . . recognise the discriminations and abuses suffered by the Algerian people”. He has recommended more than 20 “practical” acts, including opening up official archives. 

Arthur Asseraf, a French historian of north Africa at the University of Cambridge, thinks France should apologise — not for the sake of its relationship with Algeria, but rather to ensure that crimes committed under colonisation would not be repeated again. 

He said the war had “an undeniably terrible” impact on civilians, millions of whom were forced to leave homes and villages in rural areas because France wanted to “separate” people from the guerrillas of the National Liberation Front.

Nacer Jabi, a sociologist at the University of Algiers, said Algerians did not need an apology because “we know what we were subjected to in terms of colonisation, murder and plunder. It is the French who need the apology to rid themselves of this colonial legacy”. 

He added: “I don’t believe Algerian officials are serious in their demands for an apology. It is just a populist ploy they use when pressure mounts on them,” he said.

French soldiers searching house-to-house in Casbah, Algiers in May 1956
French soldiers searching house-to-house in Casbah, Algiers in May 1956 © Bettmann Archive/Getty
Coffins draped with national flags, containing the remains of 24 Algerian resistance fighters, at the Moufdi Zakaria palace, in Algiers, in July 2020
Coffins draped with national flags, containing the remains of 24 Algerian resistance fighters, at the Moufdi Zakaria palace, in Algiers, in July last year © Billal Bensalem/NurPhoto/Getty

Zohra Drif, an icon of the war of independence who was imprisoned by the French for her role in the 1956 bombing of a coffee shop frequented by Europeans, also dismissed the search for an apology. “I never understood this request,” she said. “We defeated France and took our revenge for the defeats it had inflicted on us after more than a hundred years of on and off wars.”

Since independence France and Algeria have had complex relations that have periodically led to diplomatic tensions, even though links remain deep. 

Algiers is sensitive to anything that could be construed as criticism or interference from France. Last year, there was a brief diplomatic rift triggered by a French television documentary about the anti-government protest movement in Algeria. Mr Tebboune said his country “will not accept any interference or tutelage” from abroad.

Analysts said the report is unlikely to lead to any immediate change in the relationship between the two countries.

“I think that for France, it is extremely important because we cannot continue to deny the memory of this period,” said Luis Martinez, specialist in North African politics at Sciences Po. “On the other hand, if the goal is a report that could allow reconciliation between Algeria and France, then, very clearly, no, this is not going to do it.”

Mr Daoud said: “For those who are neither French or Algerian, they see, in this Stora report . . . something like couples therapy. But it’s not couples therapy. The Stora report is therapy for France, and that’s important.”



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Italy raises €8.5bn in Europe’s biggest-ever green bond debut

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Investors flocked to Italy’s inaugural environment-focused government bond offering on Wednesday, allowing the country to raise more than €8bn.

The banks running the issuance chalked up around €80bn in orders for €8.5bn of debt. It was the biggest debut sovereign green bond from a European issuer to date, according to Intesa Sanpaolo, which worked on the deal.

Other recent Italian bond sales have also attracted strong demand, after former European Central Bank president Mario Draghi became prime minister last month.

Demand for the debt highlights the popularity of green bonds, which provide funding for environmental projects and require borrowers to report to investors on how the funds are used. 

Tanguy Claquin, head of sustainable banking at Crédit Agricole, which was a co-manager on the transaction, said the sale was met with “very strong support” from investors, particularly those that are required to consider environmental factors in their portfolios.

The bond, which matures in 2045, was issued with a yield of 1.547 per cent. The underwriters were able to reduce the premium against a normal Italian government bond maturing in 2041 to 0.12 percentage points, a slimmer premium than the 0.15 points initially mooted.

Italy follows several European countries, including Poland, Ireland, Sweden and the Netherlands, into the green debt market. France has issued 11 green bonds since 2017, totalling $30.6bn according to Moody’s Investors Service. Germany joined the market last year with two green Bunds. In its budget on Wednesday, the UK announced plans to sell at least £15bn of green bonds in two offerings this year. 

Italy is the first riskier southern-European government to tap the green market. The spreads on Italian debt relative to the eurozone benchmark German bonds fell to a six-year low of less than 0.9 percentage points in early February in a sign of investors confidence in Draghi’s leadership of the EU’s third-largest economy. The spread widened during last week’s volatile bond market trading but remains low by recent standards.

Spain plans to follow Italy with a green bond offering in the second half of 2021. Analysts expect an initial €5-10bn sale at a 20-year maturity. Johann Plé, senior portfolio manager at AXA Investment Managers said the demand for Italy’s sale “should reinforce the willingness of Spain and others to follow suit.”

Plé said the price investors paid for the Italian green bond “remained fair” and that this “highlights that strong demand does not necessarily mean investors have to pay a larger premium”.

Green bonds often command higher prices, and therefore lower yields, than their conventional equivalents from the same issuer. The German green Bund currently trades with a “greenium” around 0.04 to 0.05 percentage points, roughly double the gap when it was initially issued, according to UniCredit analysis, while French government green debt is roughly 0.01 percentage points lower in yield than conventional bonds.

Italy’s pitch on the environmental impact and reporting of its green projects drew positive reactions from some investors. Saida Eggerstedt, head of sustainable credit at Schroders, which invested in the bond, said the details provided on projects including low-carbon transport, power generation, and biodiversity were “really impressive”.



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German regulator steps in as Greensill warns of threat to 50,000 jobs

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Germany’s financial watchdog has taken direct oversight of day-to-day operations at Greensill Bank, as the lender’s ailing parent company warned that its loss of $4.6bn of credit insurance could cause a wave of defaults and 50,000 job losses.

BaFin appointed a special representative to oversee Greensill Bank’s activities in recent weeks, according to three people familiar with the matter, as concern mounted about the state of the lender’s balance sheet.

The German-based lender is one part of a group — advised by former UK prime minister David Cameron and backed by SoftBank — that extends from Australia to the UK and is now fighting for its survival.

On Monday night Greensill was denied an injunction by an Australian court after the finance group tried to prevent its insurers pulling coverage.

Greensill’s lawyers said that if the policies covering loans to 40 companies were not renewed, Greensill Bank would be “unable to provide further funding for working capital of Greensill’s clients”, some of whom were “likely to become insolvent, defaulting on their existing facilities”.

In turn that may “trigger further adverse consequences”, putting over 50,000 jobs around the world at risk, including more than 7,000 in Australia, the company’s lawyers told the court.

A judge ruled Greensill had delayed its application “despite the fact that the underwriters’ position was made clear eight months ago” and denied the injunction.

Greensill Capital is locked in talks with Apollo about a potential rescue deal, involving the sale of certain assets and operations. It has also sought protection from Australia’s insolvency regime.

Greensill was dealt a severe blow on Monday when Credit Suisse suspended $10bn of funds linked to the supply-chain finance firm, citing “considerable uncertainties” about the valuation of the funds’ assets. A second Swiss fund manager, GAM, also severed ties on Tuesday. Credit Suisse’s decision came after credit insurance expired, according to people familiar with the matter.

While the bulk of Greensill’s business is based in London, its parent company is registered in the Australian city of Bundaberg, the hometown of its founder Lex Greensill.

In Germany, where Greensill has owned a bank since 2014, BaFin, the financial watchdog, is drawing on a section of the German banking act that entitles the regulator to parachute in a special representative entrusted “with the performance of activities at an institution and assign [them] the requisite powers”.

The regulator has been conducting a special audit of Greensill Bank for the past six months and may soon impose a moratorium on the lender’s operations, these people said.

Concern is growing among regulators about the quality of some of the receivables that Greensill Bank is holding on its balance sheet, two people said. Regulators are also scrutinising the insurance that the lender has said is in place for its receivables.

Greensill Bank has provided much of the funding to GFG Alliance, a sprawling empire controlled by industrialist Sanjeev Gupta.

“There has been an ongoing regulatory audit of the bank since autumn,” said a spokesman for Greensill. “This regulatory audit report has specifically not revealed any malfeasance at the bank. We have constructive ongoing dialogue with all regulators in all jurisdictions where we operate.”

The spokesman added that all of the banks assets are “unequivocally” covered by insurance.

Greensill, a 44-year-old former investment banker, has said that the idea for his company was shaped by his experiences growing up on a watermelon farm in Bundaberg, where his family endured financial hardships when large corporations delayed payments.

Greensill Capital’s main financial product — supply-chain finance — is controversial, however, as critics have said it can be used to disguise mounting corporate borrowings.

Even if an agreement is struck with Apollo, it could still effectively wipe out shareholders such as SoftBank’s Vision Fund, which poured $1.5bn into the firm in 2019. SoftBank’s $100bn technology fund has already substantially written down the value of its stake.

Gupta, a British industrialist who is one of Greensill’s main clients, separately saw an attempt to borrow hundreds of millions of dollars from Canadian asset manager Brookfield collapse.

Executives at Credit Suisse are particularly nervous about the supply-chain finance funds’ exposure to Gupta’s opaque web of ageing industrial assets, said people familiar with the matter.

The FT reported earlier on Tuesday that Credit Suisse has larger and broader exposure to Greensill Capital than previously known, with a $160m loan, according to two people familiar with the matter.

Additional reporting by Laurence Fletcher and Kaye Wiggins in London



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FT 1000: Europe’s Fastest Growing Companies

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The latest annual ranking of businesses by revenue growth. Explore the 2021 list here — the full report including in-depth analysis and case studies will be published on March 22



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