Battle of Algiers on Paris Metro: France Faces Its Muslims

By Singer, Daniel | The Nation, November 6, 1995 | Go to article overview

Battle of Algiers on Paris Metro: France Faces Its Muslims


Singer, Daniel, The Nation


On September 29 French viewers watching the news were offered a bloody Hollywood thriller as an extra. It was the end of a long manhunt. The villain was finally cornered in a dark provincial street and, after a shootout, a cop kicked the body to check whether the man was really dead. It was gruesome but, we were assured, the police had acted in "legitimate self-defense." Doubts crept in when it was learned that the film had been edited to cut out the sound of an unknown voice yelling, "Finish him off! Finish him off!" In any case, Jean-Louis Debre, the bungling Interior Minister, at once proclaimed not only that it was all perfectly legal but also that the victim, the 24-year-old Khaled Kelkal, brought to France from Algeria as a baby, had been a key figure in all the bombings that had shaken France in the preceding couple of months. The implication was that the French could now take the Metro in peace. Wiser commentators pondered whether the authorities were not building Kelkal--a bright student turned delinquent, converted to fundamentalism in jail, yet clearly no more than a cog in the terrorist machine--into an Islamic hero and role model for young rebels. Clearly, France did not get rid of its Algerian connection through an execution; a new gas canister filled with bolts and nails exploded in Paris the day of Kelkal's funeral, and twenty-nine were injured by a similar device on the Metro October 17. While this brought out soldiers on the street corners, the suggestion that French suburbs are swept by a fundamentalist wave is, to say the least, premature.

Algeria's undeclared civil war, with its 40,000 dead, is now well into its fourth year; it is certain that the country's November 16 presidential poll, which will be boycotted by the Islamists and the key opposition parties, will not bring it to a close. France was bound to be affected because of the links forged during 130 years of colonial rule, including the traumatic eight years of the war of national liberation; because it is Algeria's primary trading partner and therefore the chief backer of the ruling military junta; and last but not least, because of the large population of Algerian origin living here. Yet it wasn't until July 25 that the war crossed the Mediterranean, literally with a bang, when a bomb exploded in the heart of Paris--at a subway station in the Latin Quarter--killing seven and wounding nearly ninety. There followed a series of explosions with fewer casualties, the bombs fortunately misfiring, exploding not on time or not at all (like the one found on the railroad tracks near Lyons, which was actually linked to Kelkal by fingerprints). Those in the know claim that the Latin Quarter job was the work of professionals brought from abroad, whereas the other, more amateurish attempts were carried out by local squads. The Armed Islamic Group, the most ruthless opponent of the regime in Algeria, was reported in October to have claimed responsibility and made demands, though such is the ambiguity of this civil war that many people still see the hand of the Algerian secret services behind the whole operation. (They would do it, in this version, to provoke popular indignation in France and thus strengthen French backing for the military regime in Algeria. The Islamic Salvation Front, the more moderate antigovernment movement in Algeria, has made this accusation publicly.)

At least one casualty of this conflict is plain to see. Despite official proclamations that one should not confuse Islam and fundamentalism, Arabs and terror, the omnipresent police in their inevitable street checks are instinctively guided by skin color. Once again, as with the Gulf War, a section of the population is under suspicion and must prove its allegiance. Behind these troubles loom two wider questions: Can Europe, torn by the current structural economic crisis, cope with immigrant workers, brought in under different circumstances as cheap temporary labor but who are now here to stay? …

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