France Forced to Deal With Old Algeria Ties

The Christmas hijacking of a jet by Islamic militants revives memory of the nine-year French-Algerian war

THE fallout of the recent hijacking of an Air France airliner by Algerian terrorists may bring an assault on forgotten memories.

Early media commentary of the Dec. 26 rescue of 172 people in Marseille, France, treated the event as a daring ``exploit,'' focusing on super-professional French commandos racing up airport boarding ramps, releasing the captives in 20 minutes. The four hijackers were described as ``cold and determined'' fanatics.

But such coverage glosses over the complexity of the crisis. France's bitter war to keep Algeria as a colony is in the deep background of all issues between the two countries. France committed nearly 2.3 million soldiers to this conflict between 1953 and 1962. Unlike the United States war in Vietnam, military service touched all groups in society.

But France has never undergone an equivalent of the US debate over the war in Vietnam.

``The French political class thinks about Algeria only in the simplest terms - Algerians are either democrats or non-democrats,'' says Benjamin Stora of the Maghreb-Europe Institute. ``After Algeria became independent [in 1962], they were no longer interested in Algeria. The Algerian war was simply forgotten. A collective amnesia set in.''

Algerians remember the war

Algerians themselves have forgotten neither their war with France nor France's backing of Algeria's current one-party government, which canceled 1991 elections that another party, the Islamic Salvation Front, looked likely to win. The date of the hijacking itself coincided with the decision, backed by France, to set aside the results of 1991 Algerian primary elections.

Ahmed Ben Bella, Algeria's first prime minister after independence, was first after the rescue to link the hijacking to France's history of conflict with Algeria. ``The first hijacking was in 1956, and was by a French government,'' he said in a TV interview. Mr. Ben Bella, then a leader of Algeria's National Liberation Front fighting for independence from France, was on that flight, which was seized by French officials to arrest the independence fighters. He spent the balance of the Algerian war in a French prison.

Last month's hijacking forces France to focus deeper on short-term security rather than to encourage a deeper dialogue. On Dec. 29, the Islamic Salvation Army, the armed wing of the Islamic Salvation Front, declared that France's involvement in thwarting the Dec. 24 hijacking of an Air France airliner in Algiers, demonstrated that ``war against France is now a legal obligation,'' according to Islamic law.

It is a threat the government is taking seriously, says French Interior Minister Charles Pasqua.

Since last week's hijacking, French authorities have suspended air and maritime links to Algeria, intensified domestic security measures, and quietly initiated inquiries into availability of housing and services for a new wave of Algerian refugees. Anti-terrorist judge Jean-Louis Bruguiere is heading up an investigation into support networks for the hijackers.

The four hijackers, killed during the Dec. 28 rescue operation by French commandos, were members of the Armed Islamic Group, which has been waging an insurgency against the military-backed Algerian government. Seventy-six foreigners and some 35,000 Algerians have been killed since the armed insurgency began in March 1993, according to Western diplomatic sources.

The bigger problem

Among France's Algerian community of 3 million, reaction to the hijacking and subsequent security measures has been muted, overshadowed by concern about the civil conflict in Algeria, now claiming from 500 to 1,000 lives a week.

``Mine has become a savage country,'' said one Algerian intellectual. ``People kill anyone, at any time, for any reason.''

Identity checks in Paris, already a matter of daily concern for young Algerians, have been stepped up in recent days. One Algerian student describes a sweep in his neighborhood at the edge of Paris where residents in three cafes were all asked to produce identity papers.

``The Algerian community in France is already under complete surveillance,'' says Bassma Kodmani-Darwish of the French Institute of International Relations. ``That creates problems from a democratic perspective, but in terms of security, it's certainly effective.''

The French Foreign Ministry insists that the basic lines of French policy have not changed as a result of the hijacking. ``There can be no solution to the Algerian conflict without a dialogue between all forces who refuse violence,'' says a Foreign Ministry spokesman.

The debate within the Algerian government between ``eradicators'' who would crush the insurgency and ``conciliators'' who seek a political dialogue has a direct parallel within the French government, especially between the Interior Ministry and the Foreign Ministry, says Severine Labat, co-author of ``The Algerian Drama.''

``The hijacking certainly convinced those already inclined to consider a political dialogue that it is even more essential.''

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