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

Article excerpt

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. …