The view from Algiers: France's colonial narrative no longer stands up

The view from Algiers: France's colonial narrative no longer stands up
Comment: The reality of France's colonial exploits in Algeria runs contrary to its claims of being a country of reason, democracy and human rights, writes Warda Mohamed.
9 min read
28 Jun, 2017
The Algerian Republican Guards arrive at the Martyr's Shrine, Algiers [AFP]

In Algiers, what is commemorated on the 8 May is not the Allied victory over Nazi Germany, but the massacres of Algerian separatists by the French in Setif, Guelma and Kherrata and the surrounding areas.

More than 70 years later and despite a few politicians' speeches, the "country of human rights" has still not been able to recognise the criminal nature of colonisation and, revise its national narrative.

May 8, 2017. In the space of two hours, over a dozen resistance fighters or 'mujahidin' were assembled in their office in downtown Algiers. On the walls were photos of the heroes and heroines of the Algerian revolution and on the office door, a poster commemorating May 8, 1945.

Ahmed L., 66, gives a detailed account of "what the French did in Algeria": "the occupation, the war, the wounds, the rapes". Hamid Zenati, mujahid and archivist, gives us an appointment at the Abane Ramdane cultural centre for the 72nd anniversary of the massacres of May 8, 1945.

At the entrance to the centre, a display of newspaper articles from the period, mostly in French, with headlines such as "Genocide!", "The true face of colonialism", "Colonial France's State crime", "Colonial barbarity"...

"Let us begin by singing the national anthem," historian Amer Kekhila says to the high school students assembled to hear him speak.

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He begins his lecture by questioning the terminology that is used: "Why the use of the word 'events' in referring to these massacres?" he asks, comparing them to other similar genocides which have been acknowledged.

In his view they were definitely "massacres". "They were not confined to the towns of Setif, Guelma and Kherrata, but spread across those whole regions and for several days". "Between 1830 and 1962", he adds, "France killed 10 million Algerians".

Massacre, genocide or crime against humanity?

During the First and Second World Wars, France drafted thousands of Algerians into its army. In return, the state promised them full citizenship: the "Crémieux decree" of 1870 had granted citizenship only to Jews and European settlers.

The others were still just the "natives" or the "Muslims". Algerians aspiring to independence like Ferhat Abbas "understood that despite their contribution to France's victories, they would never be French".

A poster at the Abane Ramdane cultural centre, Algiers, reads:
'The true face of colonialism' and 'crimes of the French state'

On 8 May, demonstrations had been organised and the independence campaigners wanted to march for their rights in a peaceful march. But a policeman killed 16-year-old Bouzid Saal, who was carrying an Algerian flag.

And as historian Warda Wanassa Tengour, from Constantine University points out: "it wasn't a big flag like we have today, it was tiny, but that was enough to cost him his life".

On that day in May, while continental France was celebrating its victory over Germany, its soldiers were killing thousands of Algerians in Algeria: 45,000 according to Algerian sources (plus thousands more arrested) at least 1,000 according to the French.

"What Hitler did to the Jews, France did to the Algerians!" says Ahmed L., with reference to the concentration camps and lime kilns. After all, the mass killing of the Jews provided the basis for the legal definition of 'genocide'.

However, the crimes perpetrated by France in Algeria during colonisation are never described by the UN or any of its bodies as crimes against humanity or genocide.

The UN is not a neutral institution and it is not in the interests of France - which once helped to define these notions - to point to its own crimes, all the more so as any real acknowledgment would have far-reaching implications, even for its current policies, such as the support for Israeli colonisation.

This is a point stressed by the historian and former president of the Association du 8 mai 1945 Mohamed El Korso, in an article for El Watan:

"A colonel in the colonial forces recounts that "The colonial army experimented with extermination by gas a good century before Nazi Germany". He goes on to list the genocidal practices, including "smoke outs and immurements (1844), lime kilns (1945) and the mass grave at Chrea with its 651 corpses."

The 'Algerian question'

And yet in France, not long ago, parliament voted for a bill proclaiming the "positive role of French presence in North Africa", though it was soon repealed. But how can two accounts of the same events coexist, and remain totally at odds with each other?

Why does the "Algerian question' pop up regularly in political debates, including the presidential election campaign?

For Daho Djerbal, a historian of Algiers II University, the answer is clear: "How to conceptualise the colonial and national question has been tormenting France ever since the 1920s. Attitudes towards the colonisation of Algeria remain problematic for the entire spectrum of French politics, with no exception.

There is a determination never to face up to the issue of colonial occupation and subjugation

"There is something stuck in the collective unconscious of public opinion and the political parties. There is a determination never to face up to the issue of colonial occupation and subjugation, and if someone does bring it up, he or she becomes suddenly inaudible, irrelevant.

Ever since the Enlightenment, France claims to have held a "copyright" on Reason. But in the way this is expressed, there is a flaw, and sometimes the flaw becomes a chasm at the heart of which we find the colonial question.

"At school, we're taught the history of the colonisation and decolonisation of Algeria and all the former colonies," says Sofiane Baroudi, 27.

For this left-wing activist and writer, "the massacres of 8 May show that colonialism did not allow Algerians to celebrate the victory over fascism with the rest of the world, by voicing their own legitimate demands.

They demonstrated once again, against the racist and genocidal nature of colonialism and reiterated the principle that freedom is not something you ask for, but something you must win through resistance."

Hamid Zenati agrees with the historian Mohammed Harbi that "the war in Algeria began on that day".

Sofiane Baroudi continues, "France is waging an ideological war in an attempt to modify or simply erase memories. It has forged an image of itself as the country of human rights, of revolution, of the people's right to resist, and of democracy, but the history of its crimes in its colonies tells a completely different story."

France has forged an image of itself as the country of human rights and of democracy, but the history of its crimes in its colonies tells a completely different story - Sofiane Baroudi

"Since 1830, violence has been the rule. For all those generals, from the 'conquest' to the 'war in Algeria', repression had to be brutal, deep and lasting" says Daho Djerbal.

Algerians' resistance met with the systematic repression of a whole people, involving the principle of collective responsibility..." What happened on 8 May 1945, he insists, "was aimed at the whole population. Algerians had to be taught that if they raised their heads, they would be smashed."

Memories of colonised people

How is it possible, that never in 132, years did the people give up resisting? Every Algerian man or woman will answer this question the same way: "on account of the hogra" (contempt). "The French forced their way into Algeria, nobody asked them to come," Dabo Djerbal points out.

"They had the most powerful army in Europe and sent 30,000 men against a population of some two or three million. The effect on that generation was traumatic, and the shock was handed down through the years."

That whole history, which actually happened relatively recently, is present everywhere in Algeria. It is the subject of conversation in a corner café on Larbi Ben M'hidi Street - named after a resistance leader murdered by order of Paul Aussaresses - and located in a neighbourhood that used to be 'reserved for Europeans and off-limits for 'natives'.

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We talked about that with historian Hocine Hamouma in the streets of the Casbah, with the children playing nearby. Also, with Saida D., 76, who proudly shows us her mudjahida certificate, on display in her living room.

Her body and her mind bear the scars of colonial rule. She tells us her story, one of resistance, the guerrillas, her wounds, the scar left on her right leg by a bullet from a sub-machine gun, being tortured and raped by French soldiers. And, she concludes, "By the grace of God, we had the courage to fight on."

Everything at stake in these memories and accounts of Algerian history also concerns the other countries colonised by the imperialist powers around the world.

Dabo Djerbal holds the view that the ex-colonised peoples and their descendants (in Algeria, those interviewed often compared the treatment of the colonised with the way the French state treats their descendants in France), must eschew validation by their colonisers and build their own narratives.

Who is the subject? Who has the right to speak? Who is 'objective'? Who is 'legitimate'? 

He tackles these questions in an article for the journal Naqd. "Only one subject elaborates, implements and defines the past, the present and the future, what can be said and cannot be said, what should be kept and what should be destroyed: the subjugator," wrote the historian.

A history that no longer holds up

The French ambassador to Algiers, Hubert Colin de Verdière acknowledged for the first time in 2005 the reality of what he termed a "massacre" and "an inexcusable tragedy". In 2012, in Algeria, French President Francois Hollande spoke of the "massacres of Setif, Guelma and Kherrata" which "remain anchored in the memory and conscience of Algerians".

'What Hitler did to the Jews, France did to the Algerians!' - Ahmed L.

This issue, which underlies all the debates about Islam, racism, police brutality, etc. is still taboo in France. And it is not just an intellectual or ideological issue.

Successive governments, the French police and army - who forged the Fifth Republic - were deeply influenced by and during the colonial period, and the war in Algeria.

"What was repressed returns to the surface, and is passed down through the state apparatus. These traumatic memories become a culture of repression, of whatever force resists or rebels," Daho Djerbal concludes.

In the working-class neighbourhoods of its overseas territories, France uses techniques of repression which it exports, and which were inaugurated in Algeria, using the state massacre known as "the battle of Algiers" as an example of a model if repression, capable of crushing any rebellion.

In 1960, mass demonstrations led to the victory of the subjugated over the colonial power. If the latter's narrative no longer holds up, it is because not only is the history of France being called into question, but everything the country claims to stand for.

Warda Mohamed is a journalist and editor of Orient XXI. She also works with other publications such as Le Monde Diplomatique, and is based in Paris.

Follow her on Twitter: @WardaMD

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.

A version of this article was previously published by our partners at Orient XXI.