French Culture and the Algerian War: Mobilizing Icons

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The subject of this paper is the role played by French culture, and more specifically French cultural icons, as a focus for agitation against the Algerian war. By the term 'French cultural icons', I refer to a broad range of intellectual figures and institutions, artistic producers and productions, and also popular leisure actors and activities which have conventionally been regarded as to some extent symbolic of 'Frenchness' and thus as repositories of the country's collective aspirations. This consciously imprecise definition will allow a wide-ranging survey of cultural manifestations in the period 1954-62: petitions by celebrated intellectuals; the academic rituals of the Universite; the writing and reading of everything from polemical essays to paperback novels; cinema, theatre and television; pictorial and poster art; and even the French football league and national football team. All of these things may, in their very different ways, be regarded as talismanic of 'Frenchness' and, for this reason, were historically mobilized by opponents of the French government's handling of the final traumatic stage of the country's belated retreat from overseas empire. In order to make sense of such a sweeping survey of what we might call the 'cultural politics' of the Franco-Algerian war, it is first necessary to make a number of preliminary remarks regarding that conflict's military and political specificity.

A non-military war

France's peculiar inability to let go gracefully in Algeria, even after the country's recent disastrous experience in Indo-China, has conventionally been understood in terms of the specificity of the French colonial enterprise on the one hand and of Algeria's unique legal status on the other. Thus, France's assimilationist imperial ideology (and, to a lesser extent, its colonial practice) - epitomized by the notions of la plus grande France or la France de cent millions d'habitants - is routinely contrasted with the pragmatic mercantilism which is supposed to have allowed the British to decolonize with relative ease in this same period. For its part, the juridical incorporation of Algeria into the body of the French nation in 1848 as three departements - administered, at least in theory, by the Ministry of the Interior, just like any other French province - is regarded as the passing of a conceptual Rubicon which would come to haunt the governments of the Fourth and Fifth Republics.

The particular weight attached by governments of various political hues to the reimposition of military and political control in the colonies after the liberation of metropolitan France is, on this reading, both part of a longer tradition of intransigence and a specific response to the perceived international weakness of France in the wake of defeat and occupation by the Germans. The key role, real and symbolic, played by the French empire in keeping alive resistance both to the Nazis and the collaborationist Vichy administration only served to reinforce this tendency. Brutal but temporarily successful in Algeria and Madagascar, such a strategy of attempting to find military solutions to the qualitatively new political problems of the post-war world was catastrophically exposed at Dien-Bien-Phu in the spring of 1954.

However, for French policy-makers, the anti-colonial writing on the wall was not yet clear, and the Algerian nationalists' armed insurrection in November of the same year would consequently trigger a military build-up in the territory which at its height saw some 500,000 troops stationed there to guard a total civilian population of less than 10 million (including approximately 1 million 'Europeans', as the French citizens resident in Algeria were habitually described, in order to distinguish them from the majority 'Muslim' population of French subjects). Yet, paradoxically, the Franco-Algerian conflict never became a military problem for France in the way that Indo-China so obviously had. …