Letter From Paris

When France Lost Its Crown Jewel

Fifty years on, it’s still struggling to get over the horror and shame of the Algerian War.

By From the September 2012 issue

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WHEN I DISEMBARKED from an Air Algerie flight at Algiers’ Dar el Beida airport long ago as a young newsmagazine correspondent, Algeria was newly independent after 130 years as a French colony. I expected that the recently formed Democratic and Popular Republic of Algeria—“neither democratic, nor a republic, and certainly not popular,” the foreign press snickered—would be an Arab country full of fierce-eyed turbaned men, mysterious veiled ladies, soaring minarets with chanting muezzins calling the faithful to prayer, and, hopefully, exotic belly dancers undulating to throbbing drums in the Casbah. I did find some of that, though the revolutionary puritans trying to impose “Arab Socialism” frowned on belly dancing.

But I soon learned that this part of the Maghreb had little resemblance to Arabia. Major cities, with architecture that resembled Dijon or Le Mans, had names like Philippeville, Oran, and Constantine. Most urban men wore business suits, the young women miniskirts. Cathedrals and churches outnumbered mosques, and officious civil servants loved to niggle importantly over details—a close parody of their French predecessors.

Besides the halting development of the new nation, the big story was whether the Soviet Union would succeed in a communist takeover, or at least convince the anti-Western Algerian government to let them set up air and naval bases there. From the terrace of my apartment overlooking the Bay of Algiers, I could see cargo ships with hammers and Sickles on their smokestacks and names like Yuri Gagarin arrive with cargos covered by tarpaulins on their decks. Soviet Air Force MiG-15 jet fighters, intel sources told me, wondering whether they would be piloted by Algerians or Russians. Similar ships were putting into the big port at Mers-el- Kébir, where the Sovs hoped to establish a strategic submarine base in the Mediterranean.

Their negotiations with a smart, 30-year-old, blue-eyed Berber named Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who Was enjoying a stint as foreign minister, ultimately led nowhere, though he was able to obtain certain goodies from them before sending them back to Moscow.Known for cruising Avenue Pasteur in his government limousine looking for attractive girls to invite aboard, Bouteflika would later be convicted of siphoning off hundreds of thousands of dollars from funds intended for Algerian embassies. Despite that, he hung on to political power thanks to his FLN (National Liberation Front) and army cronies who had fought the French. He had the perfect profile to become the anti-Western poster child for the United Nations, and at age 37 was duly elected president of the 29th General Assembly in 1974.

Bouteflika became president of Algeria in 1999, and is now on his third five-year term. It was in this role that he watched a Chinese-designed fireworks display over the port of Sidi Fredj, 20 miles west of Algiers, on July 5—the 50th anniversary of the country’s independence from France. That kicked off a year-long, $2.4 billion series of commemorative spectacles, seminars, conferences, and publications that will all celebrate liberation from the French occupation of the largest country in Africa and the Arab world.

Occupation began in 1830, when 30,000 soldiers landed on those same beaches of Sidi Fredj. Their superior firepower easily overwhelmed the Ottoman forces there, and in the process soldiers captured, and subsequently barbecued, 60 camels. Pretext for the invasion was slim, as the British historian Martin Evans relates in his recent Algeria: France’s Undeclared War (Oxford University Press). When the dey of Algiers, Khodja Hussein, demanded repayment of loans made to France during the Napoleonic Wars, the French consul refused. Thereupon the dey tapped him symbolically with a ceremonial flywhisk, calling him a “wicked, faithless, idol-worshipping rascal.” France’s retaliation eventually became a full-fledged colonization that, Bouteflika has said, “brought the genocide of our identity, of our history, of our language, of our traditions.”

THE FRENCH TAKE a predictably different view.Having declared Algeria in the 1880s officially an integral part of France on par with Normandy or Burgundy, they created the lasting legacy of an infrastructure of roads and railways, while building schools and hospitals and setting up a modern public administration. They liked to say the Mediterranean flowed through this Greater France like the Seine flowed through Paris. As late as 1954, a French interior minister and future president named François Mitterrand declared, “Algeria is France. From Flanders to the Congo, there is one law, one single nation, one sole Parliament.” And there were some 1 million French settlers there, convinced they were living in France. This was the crown jewel of its colonial empire.

But France was trying to hold back the tide of history. The collapse of Europe’s empires was one of the great trends of the 20th century, what Britain’s Prime Minister Harold Macmillan rightly called an irresistible “wind of change.” The Austro- Hungarian, German, and Ottoman colonies were lost in WWI, and Britain and France gave up their holds over a good part of the world’s populace after WWII. But while the British handed over power to new states in Africa and Asia relatively peacefully, leaving solid governmental institutions in place, the French hung on stubbornly until humiliating defeats forced them out of Vietnam and Algeria. Of all the conflicts that accompanied the end of European colonialism, the eight-year Algerian war that began in 1954 was the most brutal and tragic.

Partly that was because civil wars are the most hateful, and this often resembled brother fighting brother, with longtime household servants overnight slaughtering their masters and children. But mainly it was because Paris considered Algeria, with its size and vast oil and gas reserves, the symbol of its standing as a world power. Then, too, France was on the defensive psychologically. It had been humiliated by the Prussians in 1870, occupied by Nazi Germany in 1940, booted out of Vietnam after the massacre at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. National gloire and the pride of the French army dictated that it had to make a stand in Algeria.

Muslim resentment of the French had been simmering ever since the invasion, and rebels used whatever weapons were at hand: Axes, knives, and sabers were wielded occasionally to cut off settlers’ hands, slash breasts, slit throats. French forces reacted with bombs, summary executions, and public humiliation like making rounded-up Muslims chant, “We are dogs.” But the rebellion unexpectedly accelerated in 1942. Oddly enough, it was thanks to the Allied landing in North Africa.

Algerians liked the cut of American uniforms, the zip of their jeeps, the taste of their chewing gum.They saw how easily Gis brushed aside the Vichy troops who briefly opposed them, making the French look like losers. They noticed the easy, democratic Relations between officers and men. And they read American leaflets dropped over Algeria: “We come to your country to free you from the grip of conquerors who seek to deprive you of your sovereign rights, your religious freedom, and the right to lead your way of life in peace.” (Just who those “conquerors” were wasn’t explicit, but the Algerians had their own ideas about that.) Nor was the French cause helped by the Atlantic Charter’s call for all peoples to choose their own form of government. Franklin Roosevelt spelled that out in a private meeting with the Moroccan sultan: “Anything must be better than to live under French colonial rule,” he said. “Should a land belong to France? By what logic and by what custom and by what historical rule?”

The Algerian powder keg ignited on November 1, 1954, when the FLN offensive began with bombs across the country that left numerous dead. There followed eight years of savage, indiscriminate terrorism unequaled even in our current Age of Terror.Besides butchering French settlers—often leaving their mutilated bodies unburied with eyes gouged out, severed genitals stuffed into corpses’ mouths— the FLN sometimes gave innocent Muslim villagers a taste of the same treatment to make them fear it, and back it, more than the French. The French army responded with door-to-door ratissages to round up insurgents, torturing many to get information. The French approach to winning hearts and minds included waterboarding, administering electric shocks, and forcing both men and women to sit and impale themselves on an upturned wine bottle.

The decisive turning point came in March 1957 with the Battle of Algiers, made famous in Gillo Pontecorvo’s unforgettable 1966 film of that name. Unlike urban guerrilla warfare with street-by-street fighting, it was based on the hit-and-run tactics of terrorism— an Algerian Dien Bien Phu designed to force France to negotiate independence. Bombs, often carried by women and girls, exploded unpredictably all over the city, especially in cafes, cinemas, and theaters. As FLN leaders said, “A bomb killing 10 people and wounding 50 others is the equivalent psychologically to the loss of a French battalion.” France responded with more torture and public executions, dumping bodies from helicopters into the bay. By May 1958 the French army, sensing their countrymen’s weakening political resolve, was in revolt. A small coterie of die-hard generals threatened to drop paratroopers on Paris to put Charles de Gaulle in power, hoping he would back their demands to keep Algeria French.

As it was, de Gaulle returned to power but was noncommittal, flying to Algiers to address delirious crowds with the famous phrase “Je vous ai compris” (I have understood you). Deliberately ambiguous, it meant nothing. But it bought him time to see whether the U.S. would support his use of force to keep the colony. President Eisenhower made it clear during a state visit to Paris in September 1959 that, faithful to America’s anti-colonial tradition, he wasn’t buying it. De Gaulle knew then the game was over. In March 1962 he signed a treaty with the FLN granting Algeria its independence.The era of French empire was at an end.

TODAY, FRANCE AND ALGERIA are still trying to bring closure to the undeclared war that took the lives of some 30,000 French soldiers and, Algeria claims, killed 1.5 million Algerians (historians believe the figure is closer to 350,000). Attempts at a friendship treaty have foundered on Algeria’s insistence that France officially apologize and acknowledge its “crimes.” That’s too much for the French, who for years in denial could only bring themselves to refer to the conflict obliquely as “the events.”

So touchy is the subject still that a retired general lost his Legion d’Honneur after openly describing as “useful and necessary” the torturing and killing of prisoners, which has long been public knowledge. A current commemorative exhibit at the French Army Museum at Paris’ Invalides draws on film archives, photos, and captured FLN documents to recount the army’s 132 years in Algeria. A discreet handful of previously unpublished photos lifts one corner of the veil over the truth: an Algerian, trussed up and slung beneath a wooden bar, being beaten on the soles of his feet; French officers seizing another by the throat.

The French will need yet more time to get their minds around the horror of the war, the shame of the loss, and France’s tarnished image as a beacon of human rights. As the conservative Le Figaro mused at the beginning of this embarrassing anniversary year, “What’s the message of this commemoration?Is there even one for us? What can we say and how can we say it? How do we position ourselves with respect to Algeria, a country with which our relations are never simple?” To answer such questions could take France another 50 years.

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About the Author

Joseph A. Harriss is The American Spectator's Paris correspondent. His latest book, An American Spectator in Paris, was released this fall.