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Pathology of the French-Algerian Illness by Hélène de Lauzun

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Pathology of the French-Algerian Illness

On 5 July 2022, France and Algeria commemorated the sixtieth anniversary of Algeria’s accession to independence. Algeria had suffered through eight years of a terribly bloody war, after which upheavals continued, both after ceasefire agreements were signed on 19 March 1962, and after its proclamation of independence. 

Sixty years: a very short time in human history, just two generations—which explains the ever-present question of Algeria in French consciousness: the history of love and hate between France and Algeria is a wound that is still alive and has never closed.

Earlier this July, the French National Assembly began a new legislature. As tradition dictates, the session opened with a speech by the oldest member of the National Assembly. This time, as fate would have it, the responsibility fell to a member of the Rassemblement National. José Gonzalez, 79 years old, was elected to the RN in the Bouches-du-Rhône department, near Marseille. The old man was born in Oran, Algeria, one of the main towns of the three French departments of French Algeria until 1955. In 1962, Gonzalez experienced being uprooted and exiled from the land of his childhood. His emotional speech echoed strangely in the Chamber. 

On the banks of the Seine, Gonzalez’ words hit their mark: “I left a part of my France and many friends over there. I am a man who has seen his soul forever bruised,” explained José Gonzalez, “torn from my native land by the winds of history.” His words were followed by a long, emotional silence. “I am thinking of my friends who still lie there,” he continued. 

The emotion was palpable. Unexpectedly, his speech was greeted by applause that moved well beyond the ranks of the Rassemblement National deputies, triggering fury from the Left. Bastien Lachaud, deputy of La France Insoumise (LFI) from Seine-Saint-Denis, was outraged: “Introducing this legislature with a speech nostalgic for French Algeria, under such applause: what a shame!” he tweeted. For Mathilde Panot, president of the LFI parliamentary group, Gonzalez’s speech “must worry us collectively.” The left-wing newspaper Libération was quick to note the names of those guilty of applauding

The page was quickly turned, the deputies launched into the urgent work that awaited them, but the burning memories summoned by José Gonzalez are not about to disappear. 

Why does the Algerian War occupy such an important place in the French political imagination? The France of 2022 still lives under the Constitution of the Fifth Republic. This Constitution was created in 1958, in the middle of the Algerian War, thanks to what looks like a coup d’État by General de Gaulle, who came back to power at a time when Algerian affairs were getting bogged down. He was called back because the Parisian elites no longer knew how to get out of this spiral of violence—exhausting a land that had been French for one hundred and thirty years. 

Some trace the beginnings of the conflict to the massacres of Setif on 8 May 1945—riots that resulted in several thousand deaths, borne by both independentists and the Europeans. More often, 1 November 1954, is cited as the start date. On this November day, the National Liberation Front manifested its existence for the first time by committing a series of attacks in several places on Algerian territory, beginning with the Toussaint Rouge (Red All Saints’ Day). 

From the outset, the Algerian conflict was of particular importance to France. 

First, the matter of Algeria’s independence was not a decolonisation process in the strict sense. The Algerian territory had a specific status, with a whole series of administrative peculiarities; it was not a “colony” but a genuine part of France. 

Second, the events in Algeria broke out only a few months after the end of France’s first—and last—colonial war, the Indochina War, which ended in military defeat, and the abandonment of the former Indochina to the Viet-Minh communists led by Ho Chi Minh, according to the Geneva agreements signed on 20 July 1954. The French army that engaged in the field had lost the battle, with the violent trauma of the defeat at Dien Bien Phu, which resulted in thousands of soldiers being sent as prisoners to the communist camps. The French military had to abandon the field and hand over the local populations, who had trusted them, to the merciless reprisals of torturers who had sold their bodies and souls to the Marxist ideology. 

These memories haunted the minds of those who were engaged in “Indo,” with a strong conviction: plus jamais ça (never again). So, when the struggle against the National Liberation Front (FLN) in Algeria became more intense, and the outcome obvious, the former Indochina soldiers, now fighting in North Africa, swore to not repeat the experience. They would hold on to this land and protect those who believed in France. 

Third, the Algerian war was different because it used conscripted men to fight in the battle, a policy that had been in place since 1954. These men were not career soldiers, but young guys who did their military service and found themselves involved in a war they had not chosen. Every family, every home therefore had a stake in the conflict. 

Finally, the Algerian war occurred at a time when France, as with the whole Western world, was involved in the Cold War.Communist intellectuals were at work, and took up the cause of the independence fighters, led by Jean-Paul Sartre, who was ready to use all kinds of ideological vileness to justify the unjustifiable. The “suitcase carriers,”—the French who assisted terrorists by providing them with money and weapons—were numerous and readily at hand. The ‘good’ cause was on their side; the debate was confiscated. And the few genuinely free spirits, such as Albert Camus, a native of Oran, who passionately loved the beautiful land of Algeria and yearned for justice, were silenced.

Under these circumstances, and quickly losing support at home, the story dramatically got out of hand. The politicians, from Paris, were overwhelmed and didn’t know what to do. On 13 May 1958, the distraught government called on General de Gaulle to take hold of the situation 

Thus was born the Fifth Republic, wrought from the middle of the war. Today, France is still under the constitution of the Fifth Republic, often unmindful of how it emerged from and has been shaped by Algerian affairs.

During the spring of 1958, the military placed great hopes in General de Gaulle, but soon his plan became clear and disappointed many: the hero of the Second World War, the leader of the resistance, was ready to “let go of Algeria” because he considered that France had more to lose than to gain by abandoning its territories on the other side of the Mediterranean. The relationship between the politicians and the military thus became tense, and quickly moved from misunderstanding to rupture.

On the ground, the army waged a fierce war against the terrorists, which it was on the point of winning, but politics were in play that undermined their efforts. De Gaulle resigned himself to negotiate with the enemy, the FLN, in an unreasonable manner. He did not try to find a ‘third way,’ i.e., to explore the narrow path that might have existed between the maintenance of French Algeria, and the abandonment of the country to the criminals of the FLN. On 21 April 1961, feeling that the situation was turning against them, four generals rebelled against General de Gaulle. They were all former Indochina veterans who feared a repeat of the 1954 scenario: for them, the FLN were the new Viet-Minh. Their attempt failed miserably. The game was lost and the fate of Algeria was sealed.

The army emerged definitively broken from the putsch, thereafter refusing to get involved in politics—a trauma that still lasts today. Every time a soldier speaks out in public debate, the press and the Left raise the spectre of Algiers’s coup to silence the soldiers—now transformed into sub-citizens who no longer have a say in the destiny of the nation and who have internalised their marginalisation.

Nearly a year later, on 19 March 1962, the ceasefire was signed between France and the National Liberation Front. Two referendums were planned, one in France and the other in Algeria. France voted en masse for independence. As for the Algerian referendum, only Muslims were allowed to participate; the Europeans, the so-called “pieds-noirs,” were excluded from the vote, although there were over a million of them. Many had already fled because they were offered “the suitcase or the coffin.” Those who remained in Algeria because they couldn’t leave would be made to endure an unbearable outburst of violence and savagery that is very hard to bear: kidnappings, rapes, massacres in series, in blatant disregard of the ceasefire. This section of the population, the European-Algerian, had its voice stifled, as was that of the Harkis, the Muslims loyal to France, whom the army couldn’t save, and had, once again, abandoned to their sad fate—with the rare exception of some courageous officers who disobeyed orders to save some of their men. The tragic scenario of Indochina was repeated.

The history that follows the cease-fire and the proclamation of independence have left very dark marks on France’s record, made up of guilty blindness and dishonourable renunciations. But the events of these few months are drowned in silence, and few dare to break it. 

The story handed down through history is a morality tale. The ‘good’ triumphed with Algerian independence. The ‘evil’—i.e., the army, the Muslim auxiliaries, those who were repatriated—had to be muffled and forgotten. The intellectual primacy of the Left, and in particular of the communist Left, which enjoyed great prestige at the time, prevented the development of any alternative discourse. The wound was quickly closed, without being disinfected, and has continued to rot slowly ever since. 

In the intervening years, a few public gestures have been made, a few timid attempts to apologise and reckon with France’s shameful abandonment of Algeria. Nicolas Sarkozy was the first president to pay tribute to the Harkis in 2012. Emmanuel Macron asked forgiveness to the Harkis in September 2021. In February 2022, the French government promulgated a law on the recognition of the nation, and addressed the possibilities for reparation for the prejudices suffered by the Harkis, and other persons repatriated from Algeria. French efforts to heal the past have been unsatisfactory; they are too timid, and the media show that erupted after the speech by José Gonzales proves that history will not be easily rewritten. 

The ‘good’ of today is on the side of wokism and cancel culture. Their activists are the heirs of the communists of yore, who supported the National Liberation Front and their moral framework. Today, no “repentance,” no justice, is possible in respect to the events in Algeria because another repentance has supplanted it. 

France must repent for having conquered Algeria in 1830, and for having imposed its domination.

Algeria, despite the crimes of the FLN, insists upon its victimhood, and the French authorities remain petrified at the idea of reversing the discourse. The consequences continue to be felt in the public debate surrounding Algerian presence in France: immigrants of Algerian origin are very numerous in France, and benefit from privileges that no other nation can boast of. Today, as editorialist Michel de Jaeghere reminds us in Le Figaro Histoire, “there are more Algerian nationals in France today than there were Algerian Muslims in 1830.”

The festering Algerian wound has weakened the French body politic, made sicker by Macron’s intervention. On 20 January 2021, the historian Benjamin Stora submitted a report to Emmanuel Macron on “the memory of colonisation and the Algerian War,” the conclusion of a presidential commission to “repair the past.” 

The choice of Benjamin Stora to direct this undertaking was not insignificant: his career as a historian has been accompanied by very strong political commitments to the Left, with a marked sympathy for the Algerian independence fighters of the FLN. Rather than approach the past with honesty, the spirit of the report was distorted by the false starting point of French colonialism: it was more important to respond to Algerian recriminations about the French past than to construct a balanced truth of the war. France would therefore always be on the wrong side, that of colonialism. Stora’s report confirms that in 2022, Sartre has defeated Camus, and imposed his own definition of repentance. Repentance can only be expected from France, but Algeria will never repent. 

Of course, the report failed. Could one expect any other outcome, in the current politically correct environment, dominated by decolonial and indigenist discourse?

However, not everything in the Stora report is to be dismissed. For example, it calls for the rehabilitation of Jewish and European cemeteries in Algeria: their abandonment, looting and desecration remain a scandal for too many families who have suffered. We can also appreciate that he refutes the notion of “apologies” to be made by France. 

The real problem is that to forgive and overcome, it takes two. France delights in the idea that it has to justify itself for its so-called mistakes, but the Algerians, for their part, are far away from recognising their wrongs. The current regime considers itself the direct heir of the independence fighters. 

The Stora report has joined the shelves of libraries full of more or less questionable works. As far as Algeria is concerned, this is not a historians’ quarrel, destined to subside with time, nor an anecdotal debate. The whole of French politics depends on it, regarding its relationship to integration or assimilation—a matter at the heart of the outburst of the war—or its view of immigration and Islam. The same can be said about its vision of the army, its relationship to the state, or the management of the Gaullist legacy. All of this is still marked today by the terrible experience of the Algerian war and by an absence of a clear vision of shared responsibilities. France is still sick from Algeria and pays for it daily. So many ills stem today from this infantile disease of the Fifth Republic which is still not cured. Who will provide the long-awaited remedy?

Hélène de Lauzun studied at the École Normale Supérieure de Paris. She taught French literature and civilization at Harvard and received a Ph.D. in History from the Sorbonne. She is the author of Histoire de l’Autriche (Perrin, 2021).