Cannes Film Festival's 'Hors la Loi': How well does France face its past in Algeria?

At the Cannes Film Festival last month, riot police reined in protests over 'Hors la Loi,' a film that sparked clashes over the French Army's 1945 massacre in Algeria of at least 10,000.

Eric Gaillard/Reuters
French veterans and supporters gathered outside to protest the screening of the film, which includes a depiction of a French massacre of Algerians.
Jean-Paul Pelissier/Reuters
Director Rachid Bouchareb arrived at a news conference regarding his film ‘Hors La Loi’ at the Cannes Film Festival May 21.

A new film by French-Algerian director Rachid Bouchareb has again opened a "clash of memory" over France's difficult colonial past in Algeria and its effect on millions who got caught in a bitter and bloody struggle that ended with Algerian independence in 1962.

"Hors La Loi," or "Outside the Law," aired at the Cannes Film Festival last month, bringing protests for being "a partisan, militant ... film that compares the French to the SS and the French police to the Gestapo," as politician Lionel Luca, who had not seen the film, described it.

French intellectuals immediately rejoined, saying, "We can fear the worst when political power commits to [re]writing the history that citizens see on film screens."

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Much of the controversy centers on Mr. Bouchareb's depiction of the Setif massacre, a slaughter by the French Army of at least 10,000 Algerians. In a tragic irony, the massacre started on May 8, 1945 – V-E Day in Europe, when allied forces were celebrating liberty, democracy, and the triumph over totalitarianism and fascism in Europe.

In Algerian memory, Setif planted the seeds for independence. It showed that French colonial masters would never offer better terms for Algerian self-rule, and it ushered in the insurgent National Liberation Front, or FLN.

Never mentioned in schools

But in French memory, Setif was brushed aside, never raised in schools.

"In my French education, I never heard of Setif, which is extraordinary," says Claire Edey, a socialist politician in Paris. "So much about the war no one talks about." Not until 2005 did France officially acknowledge responsibility for Setif.

"The Algerian war is still not over in our minds and hearts, because it hasn't been sufficiently named, shown, come to terms with in and by collective memory," comments historian Benjamin Stora, a preeminent authority on Algeria.

Reaction to "Outside the Law," which traces the lives of three Algerian brothers who survive Setif, may make Mr. Stora's point. Commentator Frédéric Pons argues it is "the herald of a one-sided and hateful reading of history – that of the FLN ... [which] has controlled and ruined Algeria since 1962."

In American cultural terms, France's post-colonial struggle for Algeria, and the bitterness over its loss, might be said to have the force of a dozen Vietnams.

Jewel in the French crown

Algeria was the North African jewel in the French crown, home to nearly a million European colonists at mid-century. France was able to let Morocco and Tunisia go with relative ease. But Algeria, three times the size of France, was a special point of pride and honor. "Algeria is France," went the saying.

French general Charles de Gaulle was brought back to politics in 1958 in hopes he would keep the jewel. Algerian demonstrators were shot on Paris streets as late as 1961. When France finally quit the following year, a million pieds noirs, or European colonists, left Algeria as well – creating, along with pro-French ethnic Algerians, or harki, refugees, woe and disaffection that still echoes in the clash over Bouchareb's film.

Esther Benbassa, a historian at the Sorbonne, compares French memory of colonial Algeria to a wound that hasn't healed properly.

French reluctance to take up its dark chapters is not new. Not until the early 1970s did the full extent of French cooperation with Nazis in Vichy France came to light – thanks to US historian Robert Paxton.

Bouchareb's 2006 film "Days of Glory" was praised by then-president Jacques Chirac for raising an unacknowledged debt of honor owed to ethnic North Africans who fought to liberate Europe. Best actor in Cannes in 2006 went to the ensemble male cast for depicting young men from Tunisia, Morocco, and Algeria who could not be citizens or vote, but fought bravely.

Admonitions that have gone too far?

But today there's greater concern over restless suburbs of Africans and Arabs, and a feeling that admonitions about France's colonial-era behavior have gone too far.

Then there is a new French film, "La Rafle," that has entered the debate over "Outside the Law." "La Rafle" ("The Roundup") examines the snatching of 13,000 Jews in Paris for deportation, and received plaudits here for an unstinting look at French behavior under Nazi rule. Why the ill-treatment of fellow Jews is an acceptable subject, but not of Arabs and Algerians, is a question being raised in Muslim and Arab suburbs here.

In this sense, "Outside the Law" is not just a clash of memory but is about "the antipathy towards Islam," says Dr. Benbassa. " 'La Rafle' could be called 'anti-French,' but is not. We can now deal with that ... but not our colonial past. And now our colonial past is being played into our current hostility towards Islam by politicians."

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