French Memories of Algeria

By Singer, Barnett | Contemporary Review, May 2003 | Go to article overview

French Memories of Algeria

Singer, Barnett, Contemporary Review

FOR certain generations in France the memory of Algeria has not died even after more than four decades. With the publication in spring 2001 of General Aussaresses' confessions of torture, particularly during the Battle of Algiers, that sub-issue, sometimes erroneously identified with the entire conflict, came back strongly. Then, after the indiscriminate besmirchment, even of distinguished French soldiers, a more balanced tone of commemoration asserted itself. One could mention ever more numerous squares named for anciens combattants en Afrique du Nord. Perhaps emulating America's evolution on the memory of Vietnam, France is finally putting its Algerian history beyond the realm of simplistic stigmatization, except on the far Left. An annual day of homage to Muslim harkis who so suffered in the conflict was celebrated last September, not that it will make up for as many as 100,000 who were tortured, mutilated, or simply murdered by the victorious National Liberation Front (FLN).

In December 2002 President Chirac presided at the inauguration of the 'national memorial of the Algerian War', designated also for veterans of Morocco and Tunisia. (Chirac himself fought in Algeria.) Still under study is a future day to commemorate the end of the conflict: March 19, 1962, date of the Evian accords and ceasefire, is the top contender; but different veterans' associations, as well as pieds noirs and harkis groups, cite FLN violence through July, 1962 independence and beyond, along with Secret Army Organisation (OAS) and other vigilante activity. (The pied noirs are the French settlers who returned to France after Algeria became independent while the harkis are Algerians who supported continued French rule.)

How do ordinary Frenchmen recall or envisage the Algerian conflict? It depends on the generation. On a flight to Paris I asked a 30-year-old man for impressions of the era, and he mentioned a 'belle 'epoque', women's liberation, the Doors, his chronology stretching beyond 1962. In the San Francisco area a French graduate student in geography brightened at the mention of colonial Algeria. She assists in French courses, and they read a story by Camus set there. This seems to have been the extent of her knowledge on the subject.

Conversely, for those roughly 60 and over Algerian memories can be serious indeed. The war of ideas is still inside many, as for those who endured the Nazi Occupation (often the same people). One man who inhabits Neuilly served in the Aures mountains during 1958-1959. He felt that independence was inevitable, as the French could not win over enough Muslims. I retorted that Mafia-like tactics played a role there and he agreed -- so many feared throat-slittings. Another Frenchman some ten years younger tends a newspaper and Kodak place in Cannes. He was an airplane mechanic in seaside Bone during 1959-1960, and loved it so much after Paris that he wished to stay. A stocky smiler, he made do with Cannes, and still stares out at the Mediterranean, across which lies a troubled contemporary Algeria.

In fact the war there was the last hurrah of what turns out to have been on balance, a principled generation of French soldiers. Having experienced the defeat of 1940, many who were later in Algeria tried to wash away the stain by fighting abroad or in the Resistance, and in the final liberation of France. Many went on to the nine-year ordeal of France's attempt to regain control in Vietnam. And then came Algeria! All this represented twenty years of agony, but also a maturation process for a generation with much idealism and commitment.

One can of course read their books and paw through archives, and I have done both. Lately I have been most interested in the endpoint of the conflict. When the soldiers' putsch led by Generals Challe, Salan, Zeller and Jouhaud fizzled out in Algiers during April 1961, France found itself at a generational crossroads. The coup was led by a contingent of middle-aged or older officers, and one reason it misfired was because many younger soldiers lacked the same experience, or outlook, and there was a kind of oedipal revolt in the ranks, tending toward a new France of conveniences for all. …

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