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France’s Algeria amnesia

A refusal to confront its past leaves France facing an uncertain future, argues MARTIN EVANS

All countries have difficult chapters from their past, which continue to cast a shadow on the present. For France, the Vichy period certainly fits into that category. But, as the country has lately been considering, its colonial past is every bit as defining. A striking feature of this year’s French presidential election was the importance accorded to the aftermath of empire. Whether French colonialism was wholly positive or negative, or a complex mixture of both, took centre-stage in a manner unthinkable in Britain where, although the imperial legacy is part of the everyday atmosphere – think Theresa May’s global Britain as a post-colonial neurosis – it rarely becomes an explicit topic of mainstream political conversation.

France’s colonial controversy was ignited by the centrist candidate and eventual winner Emmanuel Macron during a visit to Algiers in mid-February. Speaking to the media he described French actions in Algeria, independent since 1962 after an eight-year war that ended the 132 years of colonial rule, as ‘genuinely barbaric’ which today would be categorised as ‘crimes against humanity’; a violence, he underlined, that is ‘a part of our past that we have to confront by apologising’.

By any stretch of the imagination these words were an unambiguous condemnation, notable not only because they went further than any previous French politician but also in how they represented a new tone on Macron’s own part. A few months earlier he had been more equivocal, telling the magazine Le Point: ‘Yes, there was torture in Algeria, but there was also the emergence of a state, or wealth, of a middle class . . . This is the reality of colonialism. There are elements of civilisation and elements of barbarism.’

Macron’s comments produced an immediate howl of protest from his main rival Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Front. For her this was an anti-patriotic act of self-flagellation designed to ingratiate himself with French voters of immigrant origin, made all the more shameful because he uttered these words in Algeria, the former jewel of France’s colonial civilising mission. On Facebook she posted: ‘Is there anything worse when you want to become president than going abroad to accuse the country you want to lead of crimes against humanity?’

François Fillon, candidate for the conservative Les Républicains, was equally damning. He denounced Macron for perpetuating this ‘hatred of our history, this perpetual repentance that is unworthy of a candidate for the presidency of the republic’, adding in an interview with the right-wing daily Le Figaro: ‘The crime against humanity, it’s the Shoah, genocides, slavery… Daring to compare colonisation with these dreadful events is a true flaw’. Last year, Fillon claimed colonisation was not a violent imposition but a sharing of a French culture with the peoples of Africa, Asia and North America.

These attacks prompted Macron to clarify his remarks. Confronted with angry protestors in the south of France, home to a large number of pieds-noirs – former settlers who left Algeria after independence, and their descendants – he defended himself on the grounds that he had not meant ‘to say that those who were living in Algeria and who served in the French army were guilty of crimes against humanity’. Instead, he contended, it was about recognising that the sole responsibility of the French state.

This return to France’s colonial past was not new, however. The Macron episode was but the latest in an on-going psychodrama where confronting this history has become inseparable from contemporary debates on migration, race and multiculturalism. This psychodrama was clear in 2002, when Jean-Marie Le Pen, Marine’s father, reached the second round of the presidential elections; a shock result which led Le Monde to publish accusations that Le Pen carried out torture as a paratrooper during the Algerian War.

It was clear, too, in February 2005, when right-wing MPs passed a law which specified that the French school curriculum should ‘recognise the positive role of the French presence overseas, especially in North Africa’ – a law subsequently rescinded by President Jacques Chirac after professional historians such as Sylvie Thénault attacked the legislation as a travesty of intellectual inquiry that marginalised slavery, racism and colonial expropriation. And it was clear in autumn 2005 when, in the face of the riots across France’s dispossessed suburbs, the authorities responded with the methods of colonial era repression, resorting to emergency laws last used in the Algerian War to re-impose order.

Benjamin Stora, France’s most prolific historian of the Algerian War, interprets these moments as symptoms of a deep-seated colonial syndrome that mirrors the country’s problems in acknowledging the Vichy Regime’s collaboration with the Nazi occupation. For Stora, France is a society in denial over colonialism in general and the Algerian War in particular and through a series of articles, books and film documentaries he has sought to overcome this amnesia – a trajectory that has provoked much hostility, partly because he comes at this history from a left-wing perspective, but also because, as an Algerian Jew born in French Algeria in 1951, he is seen to be too personally bound up with this complex past.

One starting point to understand this syndrome is the National Museum of the History of Immigration, situated on the very edge of eastern Paris near to the Bois de Vincennes. Opened in 2007, the Museum is not housed in a purpose-built edifice but within a beautiful Art Deco structure that was the legacy project of the 1931 Colonial Exhibition.

Recreating the French Empire miniature, this vast Exhibition celebrated France’s civilising mission in the colonies across the four corners of the world and within the museum the frescos on the inside and the sculptured frieze on the outside still project a benevolent enterprise spreading progress to grateful ‘native’ populations. And the consequence is a tension where the building’s imperial history arguably overshadows the museum and produces confusion. After all, it is not a museum of empire but of immigration: a story that touches French people of Portuguese, Italian and Polish origin as much as those descendants from former colonies, even if empire is a crucial dimension of the story from the First World War onwards.

Dogged by a number of false starts for over a decade or so, the impetus for the museum came from several directions. There was a grass-roots element from community migrant organisations determined to have their histories officially recognised. But it was also top-down from Jacques Chirac who, chastened by Le Pen’s success, became convinced that France needed an immigration museum, both to combat prejudice and recognise the unique role played by migration in French history. Unlike much of Europe, Chirac argued, France is an immigrant nation. Already by the early 1930s the country had the highest proportion of migrants anywhere in the world, including the USA.

Chirac’s personal imprint explains why his rival and successor Nicolas Sarkozy shunned the museum’s official opening. He had no desire to endorse a Chirac pet project. Plus, Sarkozy knew that the museum did not play well to a National Front electorate he had so assiduously courted to win the presidency in 2007. The result was a climate of official hostility made worse by criticism which saw the museum as dangerously anti-French. Why? Because it dared to deploy an Anglo-Saxon terminology of community and multiculturalism, although Le Monde praised the site as a significant step forward in understanding the complexities of modern Frenchness. ‘This museum bears witness that ‘French identity’ exists, but it has always been mixed,’ the paper said.

To some extent the atmosphere improved with the presidential victory of the Socialist Party candidate François Hollande in 2012. Already in 2006 he had talked about how, in justifying the violent repression of the Algerian liberation movement in the mid-1950s, French socialism lost its soul during the Algerian War. So, it was no surprise when he appointed Benjamin Stora to a senior strategic position within the museum to boost its national profile. Nor that he inaugurated the museum as a national institution in December 2014 with a forceful speech which recognised how diverse origins and cultures ultimately strengthen overall national unity: ‘Today one in every four French people has at least one foreign grandparent. To talk about the history of immigration is to talk about the history of France; it’s history, our history… . This diversity is an opportunity if we can appreciate it, build on it, take it to a new level, if we can express a shared desire to live together, which means full commitment to the Republic. Otherwise it means falling into the trap of division, the threat of ghettoisation, a clash of cultures and therefore racism, anti-Semitism and hatred of the ‘Other’.’

Yet, if the National Museum of the History of Immigration provides an insight into how the imperial aftermath operates at the very top level of politics, Aix-en-Provence, a second starting point for understanding the French colonial syndrome, provides a more localised perspective. A beautiful university spa town 19 miles to the north of Marseille, studded by trees and fountains, Aix took in a significant proportion of the million pieds-noirs who fled to France at Algerian independence. In fact by the mid-1980s a fifth of the town’s population was of pied-noir origin. But these pieds-noirs were not welcomed into France with open arms. They were blamed for the brutal war in Algeria that had cost so many lives. They were also considered foreign by a lot of mainland French, principally because many were Italian and Spanish in origin and had never even been to France.

This societal alienation explains why pieds-noirs turned in on themselves in the years that followed their arrival in France, constructing their own memorial culture to the lost world of French Algeria evident everywhere in Aix. One early example, unveiled in 1965, at the entrance to the main Saint-Pierre Cemetery contains a long stone wall with a grieving mother figure before an eternal flame while the bas-relief of flying birds symbolises their forced migration – images of suffering and victimhood that have become central to pieds-noirs narratives.

Societal alienation also explains why some pieds-noirs became a fertile ground for the extreme-right. Given that de Gaulle – the ‘great betrayer’ – sold out French Algeria, few pieds-noirs completely recognised themselves in mainstream right-wing Gaullism. Instinctively a significant number felt much more at home with the National Front, formed in 1972, whose nostalgia for French Algeria was obvious from the beginning. Le Pen had fought in Algeria and many of the early leaders were ex-members of the Secret Army Organisation (OAS) which carried out bombings and assassinations in France and French Algeria in an effort to keep Algeria part of France, including several near misses on de Gaulle’s life.

The pieds-noirs have always voted for the National Front in greater numbers than the rest of France right up to the last presidential election; a link that is obvious in the pied-noir website, Taking its name from the working class pied-noir quarter of Algiers during the colonial period, the website scrutinises politics and media for any anti-French Algeria sentiment. Gleefully listing left-wing candidates who lost their seats in the recent National Assembly elections – each ridiculed with a fez-style saucepan on their heads – the website is viciously anti-Macron. A heavily rouged-lipped picture of the new president alternates with slogans that attack him as the president of ‘the establishment’, of ‘foreign power’, of ‘globalisation’ who peddles ‘a needless apology culture’ while forgetting the true values of ‘nation, family and religion’. Macron’s new party En Marche is ridiculed as a cynical reworking of the Socialist Party.

Anti-global, anti-establishment and anti-liberal reflects an age of right-wing anger that was at the heart of Brexit and Trump’s victory. A different kind of anger, however, can be found in the Seine-Saint-Denis department just to the north of central Paris, a third starting point for understanding the French colonial syndrome. Commonly known by the first two digits of its postal code, the 93, the most ethnically diverse department in France, has become a byword for the breakdown of urban France, the so-called banlieues that ring-fence French cities. Certainly the statistics make grim reading. Seine-Saint-Denis has one of the highest unemployment rates in France – 40% of those under the age of 25 – and this is undoubtedly linked to patterns of prejudice derived from colonialism. So, although in theory all French people are equal citizens in the eyes of the Republic, in realty if you are called Mohammed or Aïcha, brought up in the 93’s run-down housing projects, you are second-class citizens when it comes to education and employment.

The consequence is a deep-seated isolation from broader French society that has produced a tinder-box atmosphere in the 93, evident in the long standing enmity between young residents and the police.

The department is home to Clichy-sous-Bois where the accidental electrocution of two boys from a nearby housing project as they fled the police touched off the 2005 riots already mentioned. More recently riots were sparked by a police attack on a 22-year-old youth worker, Théo, in Aulnay-sous-Bois in February this year.

Arriving in hospital covered in blood, doctors concluded that his injuries were the result of a police truncheon forced into his anus during a violent confrontation with the police in, something later confirmed by Théo to the Huffington Post: ‘They put handcuffs on me and then they told me to sit down. They sprayed tear gas in my face, and then I had a pain in my buttocks. My trousers were lowered. I was in serious pain.’ The resultant #JusticepourThéo campaign was particularly incensed by the police claims that these injuries were accidental, caused by an officer’s baton slipping into the victim’s anus. Graffiti and protest banners simply stated ‘police rape’ and, as the first weeks of February witnessed nightly clashes with the police, the then Interior Minister, Bruno Le Roux, intervened to suspend the four officers concerned, charging one with aggravated rape and the other three with aggravated assault.

This anger at the police, often seen as an occupying force, was at the heart of much of the hip-hop that emerged in the 93 during the 1980s. This culture was not a pale imitation of the original New York hip-hop, even if it was inspired by Bronx rappers like Afrika Bambaataa. Through break-dancing, graffiti art and rapping in French this culture was rooted in the urban experience of the 93 – a badge of honour – whose most famous expression was the rap duo Suprême NTM. For Joey Starr and Kool Shen, born Didier Morville and Bruno Lopes to Martinican and Portuguese parents respectively, rap music became a way of expressing their everyday experience of racism, inequality and police brutality. With songs such as The Police – a disparaging critique of police repression – and What are we waiting for…, a bitter portrayal of destroyed hope that contained the line ‘to set everything on fire’, provocation was all: incendiary lyrics that led to a long-running battle with the authorities.

In cinematic terms this urban disaffection has been captured in Mathieu Kassovitz’s 1995 film La Haine and more recently in Céline Sciamma’s 2014 film Bande de Filles, translated as Girlhood. Shot in grainy monochrome hues, La Haine tells the story of three young men from the banlieue, climaxing with a stand-off with the police and a voiceover stating simply this is ‘the story of a society falling apart’, while Girlhood focuses upon four young black women, celebrating their joy in life and inner resilience in the face of a racist and misogynist society determined to marginalise them at every level.

A large part of this young urban culture is driven by a hatred of FN – one Suprême NTM video has members of the bands entourage urinating upon the FN symbol – and not surprisingly this hatred is mutual. Jean-Marie Le Pen has forever painted the banlieues in apocalyptic terms. For him the ‘meltingpotism’ of races in the 93 represents a destructive mix because he feels that these populations, as relatively recent arrivals, have no roots in the French nation and hence no understanding of real French values.

In the run-up to the last election Marine Le Pen sought to sanitise the FN’s image by expelling her father in light of remarks denying the Holocaust, one of his perennial themes. Nevertheless despite this rebranding the hatred of young banlieue residents has remained a constant. In the FN media they are still not only routinely criminalised but also continually linked to Islamism and terrorism. This in turn is why Marine Le Pen ceaselessly talks about the need for strong law and order to control these dangerous banlieues – a language of fear that taps into widely-held anxieties generated by the Paris and Nice attacks but also recalls colonial stereotypes of threatening Arab and Black masculinities.

The presidential election revealed a France that was deeply polarised society; one dissatisfied with the status quo – this was the first time that neither a Gaullist nor a socialist had made it into the second round – but also riven with open conflict over the colonial past. In this respect there is still anger on all sides and for the foreseeable future France seems to be stuck in limbo, unable to turn the page on this imperial history in any meaningful manner.

Martin Evans is Professor of Modern European History at the University of Sussex. He is the author of Algeria: France’s Undeclared War (Oxford University Press, 2012). He is presently writing a history of contemporary Morocco for Yale University Press

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