Anniversary of Algerian War Prompts Sober Review in France
Rise of xenophobia and social unrest seen as 30-year legacy of colonial era
PARIS — LAST fall, when numerous French news media chose the approaching 30th anniversary of Algeria's independence from France to recall the long-covered-up police killings in October 1961 of dozens of Algerians whose only crime had been peaceful demonstrations in Paris streets, it came as a shock to many French.
"I never knew it happened," says Agnes Borot, an employee of a Paris electronics company who was just a month old when the events occurred. "No one ever talked about it."
That bloody repression in Paris is not all that people here seldom talk about in the eight years of war with Algeria. Yet as France prepares to observe the 30th anniversary on March 19 of the signing of accords that ended the Algerian war and closed the curtain on its colonial period, the French are beginning to face up to a time in their history that many have tried to forget.
The French are also confronting the poisoned fruits that many social observers here consider are at least partially the result of 30 years of amnesia and myths surrounding France's separation from the last piece of its former Mediterranean empire.
The unchecked rise of a xenophobic extreme right, volatile relations with a large Arab immigrant population, and the difficulties facing a virtually forgotten community of French-Algerians called "Harkis," who chose to fight on the side of France in the war, are among the products of France's refusal to come to terms with the war, some observers say. Le Pen connection
"The effect of this willingness to forget is not without connection to the phenomenon [of Jean-Marie] Le Pen," says Laurent Schwartz, a noted French mathematician, referring to the leader of France's extreme-right National Front.
Speaking last week at a seminar on the war's place in French memory and education, Mr. Schwartz noted reports of Mr. Le Pen's involvement in widespread torture of Algerian prisoners when he was a soldier.
"If there had been an immediate exposure to the truth of this war and an acceptance of responsibility," he says, "we would have many fewer people carried away by a fascist political party in France."
As if to make up for the past, a plethora of books, reports, seminars, and documentaries with such titles as "The War Without Name" and "The Silence of the River" - a documentary title referring to the surreptitious dumping of bodies into Paris's Seine River following the police killings in 1961 - is focusing on a war that officially was never more than "the events in Algeria."
Thousands of the more than 2 million French veterans of the war are expected to parade in Paris March 19 in a commemoration contested by other veterans who say the day is a symbol of defeat and abandonment.
In addition, for the first time the government is considering inclusion of a delegation made up solely of Algerian war veterans in the very official Bastille Day military parade on July 14.
As commentary and discussion of the war years have proliferated, portrayals of America's relatively healthy willingness to face up to the trauma of the Vietnam war have become commonplace. Yet some historians, even some who are critical of the French treatment of Algerian history, say the comparison is unfair.
"It was easier for Americans to examine their conscience after Vietnam," says Benjamin Stora, director of the Maghreb-Europe Institute. "They hadn't been in Vietnam for 130 years, and they hadn't lost what they considered was their soil."
Lost were not only 30,000 French and several hundred thousand Algerian lives, but also France's historic sense of its "civilizing mission" in the world.
Mr. Stora says there is another, more condemnable reason the French could not easily face up to the Algerian war, and especially to the issue of torture.
"To face that truth would have led immediately to questions of how it was that a people who believed they had all struggled against Nazi torture and genocide had very shortly thereafter employed some of the same horrible methods," he says.
"To accept an examination of conscience over Algeria was to arrive very quickly at the truth of [collaboration during] Vichy," the government during German occupation in World War II.
Indeed, French historian Jean-Pierre Rioux cites what he considers striking similarities between the way former French President Charles de Gaulle got the French past both World War II and the Algerian war with their sense of honor intact.
"At the liberation De Gaulle saw that for France to remain a great country, the French would have to believe they had all been [anti-Nazi] resistants, and it was a myth that quickly took hold," says Mr. Rioux, author of "The Algerian War and the French."
"He then told them France could reclaim its rank as a major power if they could just turn the Algerian page," Rioux adds. "For the French, who were busy enjoying the fruits of postwar economic growth and eager to live a comfortable life, that too was a myth gladly adopted." Calls for recognition
The myths might have held, Rioux and others say, if not for the war veterans, the Harkis, the immigrants, and their children calling for the legacy of the Algerian war to be recognized.
"The government would like [the French] to believe that one fine day they just decided to grant Algeria its independence, but it did not happen like that," says Maurice Sicart, general secretary of the 306,000-member National Federation of Veterans of Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia. "Our organization is fighting for the equal recognition of this war's veterans with those of other conflicts, but we also work to establish the truth of what happened."
Perhaps the most tragic case is that of the Harkis, most of whom feel rejected and forgotten in the country for which they fought.
"When Algeria won its independence [the new government] gave us the famous choice of 'the suitcase or the coffin'," says Ali Tabli, president of the National Renewal of Harkis and Their Friends. "So we came to the country we had defended with our lives. Now, the French, to their shame, express only disdain for us and see in us only as the Muslims they reject and not compatriots who defended their flag."
For Stora, it is the nearly 1 million Algerians in France who provide the fundamental reason the Algerian war has resurfaced after 30 years. "They want to know why they are the victims of racism, what its sources are," he says. "But you can't understand that without going back to the war, and to those who remain nostalgic for a French Algeria."