Fifty years have passed since the Algerian independence from France, and the old wounds haven’t healed – on the contrary. Both countries’ political classes still find it difficult to free their bilateral relations of the long-established colonial discourse. The Front Libération National’s (FLN) struggle for liberation that started in 1954 has left deep scars in the national identity of both societies that even today regularly reappear on the surface. Algeria’s close economic, administrative and ideological ties with France during the 132 years of colonial rule play a major role in this, as does the domestic utilization of fragments of their common history that form the collective culture of remembrance in both countries. To this day, France has a hard time dealing with its colonial heritage. The strong influence of the right-wing Front National (FN) on French politics closely relates to the collapse of L’Algérie française. On the other hand, Algeria, every year exuberantly celebrates the disengagement from France on July 5th.
The FLN, who has been in control of the executive authority since 1962, draws its legitimacy and its special status in the Algerian political system solely from its leading role during the fight against the colonial regime. Therefore, the memory of the colonial period is of existential significance for the FLN. At the same time, Paris still has to cope with the loss of its most important colony. Algeria was no ordinary colony but the prototype of a French settlement colony, and was considered an elementary component of the republic. Up until the 1990s, the Algerian war of independence was only a minor part of French literature and mass media, and regularly caused domestic disputes in France. The Algerian War was deliberately ignored in school books for a long time. But why does Paris find it so difficult to cope with its past? And what are the reasons for Algiers’ authoritarian regime to engage in such an aggressive policy of commemoration even today?
“L’Algérie, c’est la France” – France’s last colonial war
On November 1st, 1954, the Algerian war of liberation, led by the FLN, started with coordinated bomb attacks all over Algeria. For Paris, Algeria’s self-determination was not up for debate – quite the opposite. The loss of Indochina shortly before questioned the ideological foundations of the colonial power France, which continued to define itself as the Grande Nation; hence France was determined not to relinquish Algeria whatever the circumstances. The colonial empire was the last remaining anchor for Paris’ fantasies of world power while France was facing an economical and military decline during the first half of the 20th century. By 1954, the number of settlers living in Algeria had risen to one million. The systematical dispossession of the autochthonous population and the monopolization of the economy in the hands of the pied noir de facto brought about a ‘two-class’ system. Despite its republican laicism, France established a special status defined along religious and ethnic lines for Berbers and Arabs in Algeria, who were French subjects but not French citizens.
Algerian nationalism did not dawn until the end of the Second World War, and was sparked by the events of May 8th, 1945. On this day, French settlers and the army bloodily suppressed demonstrations by Algerian nationalists in Sétif and Guelma. In the fall of 1954, shortly after the start of the nationwide uprising, French Minister of the Interior François Mitterand still stated, “L’Algérie, c’est la France.” The FLN gradually was annihilated after the Battle of Algiers in 1954 by the massive French military contingent and moved its activities to France. The first signs of a turn from the dogma of “French-Algeria” led to the collapse of the Fourth Republic under the burden of the war. On May 13th, 1958, the French generals that were stationed in Algeria organized a coup and brought Charles de Gaulle into the highest office of the state. The constitution of the Fifth Republic was a turning point for France’s political system as it transformed the parliamentarian Fourth Republic into an authoritarian presidential democracy.
Even in France, the French government wasn’t in charge of the situation anymore. This was illustrated by the violent clashes that occurred in Paris in December 1961 after a demonstration for Algeria’s independence. In addition to that, a protest organized by some unions and the French Communist Party against the Organisation de l’armée secréte (OAS) was suppressed in February 1962. The OAS was an extreme right-wing terrorist group that fought for the preservation of L’Algérie française. The OAS, made up mainly of radical settlers, carried out numerous bomb attacks in Algeria and committed assassinations of FLN officials. The consequences of the Algerian independence in 1962 were disastrous for France. Violent riots against Algiers-Frenchmen which occurred after the official independence on July 5th led to a mass exodus of the pied noir. In 1962 alone, 800,000 settlers emigrated to France, most of whom settled in the south of the country – a fact that explains the strong influence of the FN in this region up until today.
The Fifth Republic and the Algerian War
The Algerian War vanished from public discourse during the 1960s. Only in the 1970s, the milieu in favor of L’Algérie française – formed around the OAS and the Algiers-Frenchmen – started to gather again after years of parliamentarian disorientation. After initial criminal prosecution, the OAS leadership was rehabilitated under president Mitterand. The putschists received compensation for their material losses. As can be established retrospectively, the amnesty for the OAS supported the rise of the FN which was founded in 1972. The party achieved its first communal-political success shortly after the indemnification by Mitterand. In June 1984, the FN gained 11% of the votes in the European elections. Associations close to OAS and FN conjured up a ‘stab-in-the-back-legend’ concerning the loss of Algeria, which enabled the extreme right to pose as an advocate for the greater national cause and by that put pressure on the conservative establishment. French Foreign Minister Claude Cheysson’s visit to Algeria in 1984 on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the outbreak of the war provoked sharp criticism by Gaullist politicians (e.g. by then mayor of Paris Jaques Chirac and by right-wing revisionist-oriented settler associations). Since the mid 1980s, the Front National is a constituent part of the Fifth Republic.
Tense Relationship Between Algiers and Paris
Europe’s efforts to receive access to the Libyan oil fields in the fall of 2008 created a sensation. Silvio Berlusconi, then Italian prime minister, apologized for the colonial crimes committed by Italy and promised compensations to Tripoli. The French process of coming to terms with its past is a slow one, despite demands voiced by Algeria asking Paris to assume responsibility for the atrocities committed during the colonial era. Not earlier than 1999, the French national assembly passed a law that provided an official recognition of the Algerian War. The term ‘War’ replaced the term ‘Operation for the Maintenance of Order’ that had been common usage until then. The public discussion about the French role in Algeria sparked off a new debate about torture, the center of which turned out to be Jean-Marie Le Pen, former chair of the Front National. Le Pen had worked for the French intelligence during the Algerian War. In several court proceedings, he denied having been personally involved in torture – contrary to his own confirmation in the magazine Combat in 1962.
The evaluation of the colonial history is contested until today, which is illustrated by the public rhetoric by the French executive bodies. During his visit to Algiers in 1981, President François Mitterand declared, speaking in front of the Algerian parliament: “The past is the past. Let us now, firmly, look towards the future.” Jaques Chirac took a stand concerning the relationship between the two states as well during his official visit to Algeria in 2003, but unlike his predecessor he avoided to formulate an admission of guilt. Rather, he stated that both sides had received scars and emphasized the importance of foundations for a common future yet to be built. As historian Frank Renken describes in his book “Frankreich im Schatten des Algerienkrieges,” (France in the Shadow of the Algerian War) Paris still avoids admitting that the pain on both sides was a result of the colonial subjection and was in no way distributed equally. Nicolas Sarkozy uses similar terms when dealing with Algeria. In 2007, he stated in Algiers that he “neither came to hurt nor to apologize.” He emphasized the necessity to bring an end to the past and to “determinedly turn towards the future.”
No one had expected a Pardon by Sarkozy. Nevertheless, his visit served to pour oil on troubled waters. In February 2005, a new French law had stirred irritation as it highlighted France’s positive role in its colonies. The preamble of the law states that “The nation expresses its appreciation to the men and women who took part (…) in the work carried out by France in the former French Départements in Algeria.” Article 4 of this law aimed to influence educational policy turned out especially tricky, as it requests the academic and school system to emphasize “the positive role of the French presence overseas and especially in North Africa.” The text was approved by the National Assembly and is still in effect, although Chirac declared Article 4 to be unconstitutional and had it removed. The Union pour un mouvement populaire (UMP) tried to snatch away votes from the strengthened FN, especially so since Chirac had to unexpectedly face right-wing Le Pen in the 2002 presidential elections. Chirac as well as Sarkozy repeatedly used right-wing rhetoric to have a voice in the influential settler lobby. The presidential elections in 2012 again are devoted to ballot box maneuvers between conservatives and right-wingers. Marine Le Pen, daughter of Jean-Marie and head of FN since 2011, received far more than 20% in recently conducted polls. The milieu around the pied noir that came back to France in 1962 still forms the electoral base of FN and constitutes a burden for the Algerian-French relations.
The Reception of the War in Algeria
After independence, the FLN enjoyed undisputed authority in Algeria. The military putsch by Houari Boumediénne in 1965 allowed for the government to implement an authoritarian Islamic policy. Since 1954, the FLN propagated the slogan “Islam is my religion, Arabic is my language, Algeria is my homeland” and since 1965 the Boumediénne government carried out a policy of islamization. The French language was banned from schools, an Arab-religious rhetoric was intensified, and the opposition was suppressed. The FLN monopolized economical and political power and used the anti-French colonial discourse to consolidate its rule. Until today, the FLN draws its legitimacy solely from the anti-colonial struggle. In “Poste restante: Alger,” Algerian author Boualem Sansal writes: “This case is the bank robbery of the century. The struggle of the Algerian people for their independence was privatized on the day of the cessation of fire, this famous 19th of March, 1962, and (…) transformed into the sole property of the FLN.” In view of the Islamist terror during the 1990s, regulatory measures were added to the FLN’s legitimacy strategy, and the civil war facilitated a renaissance of the FLN rule. The FLN impressively demonstrated that the political instability could not be ended without them. Nevertheless, the struggle against colonialism stays a constituent element of its ideology. President Bouteflika was not able to overcome the long-established party codex and became part of the driving forces that started a new colonial discourse in 2010. He demanded an apology by the people of France for the crimes committed in their name, and initiated a law criminalizing the French colonial crimes. Even today, Algerian domestic policy is determined by an agenda which aims at securing the FLN’s dominant position, rather than trying to solve the country’s social and political problems. It remains questionable whether the regime will be able to utilize the country’s colonial past in the future as the majority of the Algerian population was born after the end of the colonial era and has only been socialized under the authoritarian rule by the FLN. So far, the Arab Spring has largely rolled past Algeria but the country is expecting critical times in view of the parliamentary elections on May 10th.
© Sofian Philip Naceur 2012
Translation German-English by Svenja Oberender