Algeria Is The Post-colonial Wound That Still Bleeds In France
13 January 2015
By Robert Fisk
Algeria. Long before the identity of the murder
suspects was revealed by the French police even
before I heard the names of Cherif and Said Kouachi
I muttered the word "Algeria" to myself. As soon as I
heard the names and saw the faces, I said the word
"Algeria" again. And then the French police said the
two men were of "Algerian origin".
For Algeria remains the most painful wound within the
body politic of the Republic save, perhaps, for its
continuing self-examination of Nazi occupation and
provides a fearful context for every act of Arab
violence against France. The six-year Algerian war for
independence, in which perhaps a million and a half
Arab Muslims and many thousands of French men and
women died, remains an unending and unresolved agony
for both peoples. Just over half a century ago, it
almost started a French civil war.
Maybe all newspaper and television reports should
carry a "history corner", a little reminder that
nothing absolutely zilch happens without a past.
Massacres, bloodletting, fury, sorrow, police hunts
("widening" or "narrowing" as sub-editors wish) take
the headlines. Always it's the "who" and the "how"
but rarely the "why". Take the crime against humanity
in Paris this week the words "atrocity" and
"barbarity" somehow diminish the savagery of this act
and its immediate aftermath.
We know the victims: journalists, cartoonists, cops.
And how they were killed. Masked gunmen, Kalashnikov
automatic rifles, ruthless, almost professional
nonchalance. And the answer to "why" was helpfully
supplied by the murderers. They wanted to avenge "the
Prophet" for Charlie Hebdo's irreverent and (for
Muslims) highly offensive cartoons. And of course, we
must all repeat the rubric: nothing nothing ever
could justify these cruel acts of mass murder. And no,
the killers cannot call on history to justify their
But there's an important context that somehow got left
out of the story this week, the "history corner" that
many Frenchmen as well as Algerians prefer to ignore:
the bloody 1954-62 struggle of an entire people for
freedom against a brutal imperial regime, a prolonged
war which remains the foundational quarrel of Arabs
and French to this day.
The desperate and permanent crisis in Algerian-French
relations, like the refusal of a divorced couple to
accept an agreed narrative of their sorrow, poisons
the cohabitation of these two peoples in France.
However Cherif and Said Kouachi excused their actions,
they were born at a time when Algeria had been
invisibly mutilated by 132 years of occupation.
Perhaps five million of France's six-and- half million
Muslims are Algerian. Most are poor, many regard
themselves as second-class citizens in the land of
Like all tragedies, Algeria's eludes the one-paragraph
explanation of news agency dispatches, even the
shorter histories written by both sides after the
French abandoned Algeria in 1962.
For unlike other important French dependencies or
colonies, Algeria was regarded as an integral part of
metropolitan France, sending representatives to the
French parliament in Paris, even providing Charles de
Gaulle and the Allies with a French "capital" from
which to invade Nazi-occupied north Africa and Sicily.
More than 100 years earlier, France had invaded
Algeria itself, subjugating its native Muslim
population, building small French towns and chateaux
across the countryside, even in an early
19th-century Catholic renaissance which was supposed
to "re-Christianise" northern Africa converting
mosques into churches.
The Algerian response to what today appears to be a
monstrous historical anachronism varied over the
decades between lassitude, collaboration and
insurrection. A demonstration for independence in the
Muslim-majority and nationalist town of Sιtif on VE
Day when the Allies had liberated the captive
countries of Europe resulted in the killing of 103
European civilians. French government revenge was
ruthless; up to 700 Muslim civilians perhaps far
more were killed by infuriated French "colons" and
in bombardment of surrounding villages by French
aircraft and a naval cruiser. The world paid little
But when a full-scale insurrection broke out in 1954
at first, of course, ambushes with few French lives
lost and then attacks on the French army the sombre
war of Algerian liberation was almost preordained.
Beaten in that classic post-war anti-colonial battle
at Dien Bien Phu, the French army, after its debacle
in 1940, seemed vulnerable to the more romantic
Algerian nationalists who noted France's further
humiliation at Suez in 1956.
What the historian Alistair Horne rightly described in
his magnificent history of the Algerian struggle as "a
savage war of peace" took the lives of hundreds of
thousands. Bombs, booby traps, massacres by government
forces and National Liberation Front guerrillas in the
"bled" the countryside south of the Mediterranean
led to the brutal suppression of Muslim sectors of
Algiers, the assassination, torture and execution of
guerrilla leaders by French paratroopers, soldiers,
Foreign Legion operatives including German ex-Nazis
and paramilitary police. Even white French
sympathisers of the Algerians were "disappeared".
Albert Camus spoke out against torture and French
civil servants were sickened by the brutality employed
to keep Algeria French.
De Gaulle appeared to support the white population and
said as much in Algiers "Je vous ai compris," he
told them and then proceeded to negotiate with FLN
representatives in France. Algerians had long provided
the majority of France's Muslim population and in
October 1961 up to 30,000 of them staged a banned
independence rally in Paris in fact, scarcely a mile
from the scene of last week's slaughter which was
attacked by French police units who murdered, it is
now acknowledged, up to 600 of the protesters.
Algerians were beaten to death in police barracks or
thrown into the Seine. The police chief who supervised
security operations and who apparently directed the
1961 massacre was none other than Maurice Papon who
was, almost 40 years later, convicted for crimes
against humanity under Petain's Vichy regime during
the Nazi occupation.
The Algerian conflict finished in a bloodbath. White
"pied noir" French colonists refused to accept
France's withdrawal, supported the secret OAS in
attacking Algerian Muslims and encouraged French
military units to mutiny. At one point, De Gaulle
feared that French paratroopers would try to take over
When the end came, despite FLN promises to protect
French citizens who chose to stay in Algeria, there
were mass killings in Oran. Up to a million and a half
white French men, women and children faced with a
choice of "the coffin or the suitcase" left for
France, along with thousands of loyal Algerian "harki"
fighters who fought with the army but were then
largely abandoned to their terrible fate by De Gaulle.
Some were forced to swallow their own French military
medals and thrown into mass graves.
But the former French colonists, who still regarded
Algeria as French along with an exhausted FLN
dictatorship which took over the independent country
instituted a cold peace in which Algeria's residual
anger, in France as well as in the homeland, settled
into long-standing resentment. In Algeria, the new
nationalist elite embarked on a hopeless Soviet-style
industrialisation of their country. Former French
citizens demanded massive reparations; indeed, for
decades, the French kept all the drainage maps of
major Algerian cities so that the new owners of
Algeria had to dig up square miles of city streets
every time a water main burst.
And when the Algerian civil war of the 1980s commenced
after the Algerian army cancelled a second round of
elections which Islamists were sure to win the
corrupt FLN "pouvoir" and the Muslim rebels embarked
on a conflict every bit as gruesome as the
Franco-Algerian war of the 1950s and 1960s. Torture,
disappearances, village massacres all resumed. France
discreetly supported a dictatorship whose military
leaders salted away millions of dollars in Swiss
Algerian Muslims returning from the anti-Soviet war in
Afghanistan joined the Islamists in the mountains,
killing some of the few remaining French citizens in
Algeria. And many subsequently left to fight in the
Islamist wars, in Iraq and later Syria.
Enter here the Kouachi brothers, especially Chιrif,
who was imprisoned for taking Frenchmen to fight
against the Americans in Iraq. And the United States,
with French support, now backs the FLN regime in its
continuing battle against Islamists in Algeria's
deserts and mountain forests, arming a military which
tortured and murdered thousands of men in the 1990s.
As an American diplomat said just before the 2003
invasion of Iraq, the United States "has much to
learn" from the Algerian authorities. You can see why
some Algerians went to fight for the Iraqi resistance.
And found a new cause
* Robert Fisk is an English writer and journalist
from Maidstone, Kent. He has been Middle East
correspondent of The Independent for more than twenty
years, primarily based in Beirut. This article was
originally published by The Independent.