Why did Emmanuel Macron choose to attack colonialism (or, more precisely, "la colonisation") as a "crime against humanity?" Does this represent a deep personal conviction, a shrewd electoral calculus, or perhaps a combination of the two?
As a historian, I would have been happier with a more precise indictment, given the seriousness of the charge. After all, who hasn't been guilty of "colonialism?" All the great powers and many of the small ones at the very least. If everyone is guilty of "crimes against humanity," one has to wonder first of all about the victim "humanity." The charge is so broad that it amounts to indicting humanity itself for all its debilitating and disqualifying sins--a religious rather than a political condemnation, and as such perhaps not altogether alien to Macron's vision of politics as comporting a "Christic" dimension. Had he been more specific in his allegations, condemning France's crimes (enfumades, massacres, torture, famines) in the context of colonialism, he would have performed a more useful pedagogic service. As it is, he offers instant expiation along with his confession: Yes, we are guilty, so were they all, so has every descendant of Adam been, say 15 Hail Marys, my son, and be on time for work Monday morning.
Still, politically, Macron enthusiasts will say, he did a bold thing, and it will have cost him some votes, so this proves he is a politician of conviction rather than calculation. Well, perhaps. Most of those incensed by the condemnation of colonialism will have been on the other side anyway. What Macron offers to the electorate is rather an alternative version of French history to that already injected into the campaign by Fillon, for whom History is a highlight reel of Great Men and Moments from Vercingetorix at Alésia to de Gaulle in London and Algiers (Macron even borrowed "je vous ai compris" from the General in response to his critics). Macron knows that anyone likely to vote for him will be a person for whom the words mission civilisatrice must be placed between scare quotes. Hence for whom the condemnation of colonialism will come as salve rather than shock.
With Fillon's candidacy disintegrating, it makes sense to reach out to those who would have been among the softer of his supporters, many of whom will have harbored doubts about the right-wing effort to shore up the national identity by resurrecting an heroic ideal of the national past. Just as Chirac judged that the moment was right to own up to France's complicity in the Holocaust well after it was safe to do so, Macron has made the same judgment about colonialism. But I don't want to be too cynical about it. It was the right thing to say, or nearly right (allowing for the caveats outlined above), and it would be churlish to criticize a politician for saying the right thing.
One can criticize him, however, for saying the wrong thing, which he arguably did by extending his "understanding" to those who marched against the legalization of gay marriage in the Manif pour Tous. Of course, he may have had good reasons for that too: Among the voters deserting Fillon are surely some who were attracted to his warm defense of "traditional moral values," meaning immemorial prejudices against certain violations of social norms. Marine Le Pen's FN being notably gay friendly and as "untraditional" as her own family values, some who might otherwise have leaned toward her leaned back toward Fillon, who comforted their uneasiness on that score. Macron's "comprehension" might not be enough to win their votes, but it might remind them why they resisted Le Pen's siren call in the first place and prevent them from deserting to the FN.
I apologize in advance for this analysis of Macron's motives, which places more importance on his apparent self-interest than on his possible convictions. Cynicism is unbecoming, it's the first refuge of a scoundrel, and I'm guilty here of more than a little cynicism.