Algerian vets join France's Bastille Day parade, pricking old wounds

Some in France still seethe over their defeat in the Algerian War and resent the Algerians' participation. The anger is sharpest among rightest opponents of President Hollande. 

Michel Euler/Pool/Reuters
French President Francois Hollande (bottom r.) poses for a photo with foreign soldiers from 80 nations that fought for France in World War I, and descendants of veterans in Paris, on July 7. All will take part in France's Bastille Day parade July 14, and will include three representatives of the Algerian army.

France’s annual Bastille Day celebrations, a display of pomp and power that’s played out down the main boulevard of Paris since 1880, come with an even more heightened sense of drama this year.

For the first time ever, three military representatives from France's former colony Algeria have been invited to join today's parade to commemorate the 1789 storming of the Bastille.

On the face of it, there is nothing strange about this. France often invites other countries to celebrate July 14. This year, because it’s the centenary of World War I, France has invited 80 nations. Some 173,000 Algerian troops fought for Europe. Some 23,000 of them lost their lives between 1914 and 1918. This year’s invitation is a nod to that sacrifice.

But the intended message of gratitude has been overshadowed by raw memories of the 1954-1962 Algerian War of Independence. In France, some still seethe over the fate of French citizens expelled from Algeria after the war, a grievance pronounced among France's far right. Some Algerians remain bitter over France's policy of forced conscription in World War I, as well as the French army's later indiscriminate killing of Algerians in its doomed effort to defeat the revolutionary National Liberation Front.

The Algerian war also generates complicated feelings in France because it sealed the end of the decline of French colonialism in Africa. And now, over a half century later, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius has said it’s “nothing shocking” that the Algerian veterans should be honored in Paris.

Algeria's legacy

But that message has fallen on some deaf ears, especially those of the National Front (FN), the right-wing party in France that is surging in polls. Many of the FN's members are haunted by France's military defeat in Algeria. Its founder, Jean-Marie Le Pen, was a paratrooper in the French Army at the time, and members of the party have called the government's invitation to Algerian fighters "shameful." 

The FN also has a tense relationship with the many Algerian immigrants who call France home today, says Akram Belkaid, an Algerian-born journalist and author of “Returns to Algeria." Many of the far right “cannot seem to stand to see the [Algerian] flag," he says.

Indeed, the mayor of Nice last month imposed a temporary ban on displaying foreign flags, ahead of the World Cup game between Germany and Algeria. His ruling followed riots after two previous Algerian games.

The controversy over Bastille Day is fueled by suspicions that French President François Hollande is inviting Algeria as a political ploy, says Mr. Belkaid. While Algerians and other Muslim voters helped elect the leftist president, his support of gay marriage has caused many to defect to the right.

Meanwhile, Algerians look askance at being feted by France for fighting in World War I, since they were conscripts. And, despite the deep economic and personal ties between the countries and people, political feelings about France in Algeria are just as complex as those about Algeria in France.  

Still, many hope this commemoration, as the world marks 100 years since the start of World War I, begins a long-overdue reconciliation between the two nations.

Writing in Le Figaro, two French officers recently wrote: “This participation is highly symbolic and should be for France and Algeria an exceptional occasion to seal the reconciliation so long-awaited and hoped for between our two countries. After the tearing apart that happened after more than a half century ago, we think it’s time to write a new page in history for Franco-Algerian relations.”

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