A French Quarrel

What Algeria’s past can—and can’t—tell us about the present day

It was arguably fair, when André Maurois finished his Histoire de la France, to permit him a small allowance of la gloire and to agree with his conclusion that “The history of France, a permanent miracle, has the singular privilege of impassioning the peoples of the earth to the point where they all take part in French quarrels.” And it was certainly true, when Alistair Horne began his long study of the Algerian war (or the Algerian revolution), that no sentient person could fail to share his conviction that France in 1789, 1848, 1871 (the Paris Commune), 1916 (Verdun), and 1940 (the defeat and capitulation that led to Vichy) was in some sense both the mother and the daughter—and perhaps also the orphan—of modern history.

At all events, there is no doubt that the eight-year struggle for Algeria was momentous for le monde entier as well as for France herself. The intense and dramatic fighting marked the emergence of militant pan-Arab nationalism as well as, to some extent, the revival of Islam as a modern political force. It was one of the initial tests of the validity of the United Nations in bringing new states and countries to independence. It became an important early sideshow in the Cold War, with the United States this time attempting to play the role of an anticolonial power. And it was a reprise, at some remove, of the fratricide between Gaullist and Vichyite forces that had ceased only a decade before the hostilities in Algeria broke out.

A history so intricately filiated will soon disclose the lineaments of tragedy, and Horne’s achievement—in a book first published in 1977—was to speak with gruff respect of the might-have-beens without losing his concentration on the blunt and unavoidable facts. Had liberated France in 1945 begun to speak of the emancipation of its colonized peoples in the same tones that it demanded so peremptorily for itself (and had it realized that the world of European dominion was never coming back), the history of North Africa—and indeed, Indochina—might have been radically different. Horne’s title is taken from Rudyard Kipling’s poem “The White Man’s Burden,” which was originally addressed to Henry Cabot Lodge, Theodore Roosevelt, and other Americans who were pondering what to do with the Philippine Islands after shattering the Spanish empire in 1898. But Algeria in 1945 was a province of a foredoomed French empire, so no invocation of the old mission civilisatrice had even a prayer of working.

Least of all did the impossible scheme of keeping Algeria as an actual département of France have such a chance. Relatively sober steps had been taken, especially under the prime ministership of Pierre Mendès-France, to bring independence to Tunisia and Morocco, and to end the long misery and shame of France’s nostalgia for a renovated empire in Vietnam, which ended all in one day at the battle of Dien Bien Phu. When it came to Algeria, Mendès-France borrowed from an old plan, for modest autonomy, first evolved by his predecessor Léon Blum. It isn’t exaggerating by much to say that both of these Jewish Frenchmen—products of the campaign to vindicate Captain Dreyfus—were viciously thwarted by a white-settler movement whose allegiance was to Pétain and Poujade, and in some cases to Charles Maurras and the Action Française. Every move to reform Algeria even slightly was vetoed by a pied-noir lobby that was addicted to overplaying its own hand.

Also see:

Chronology of the Algerian War of Independence
A timeline: 1945-1962.

This grandiose primitivism was not shared, as Horne brilliantly and movingly demonstrates, by the military men upon whom the pieds-noirs depended. Many of these soldiers had fought against Vichy and its Nazi backers (in French Africa, in the Middle East, or in France itself), and they had a concept of republican virtue, as well as an esprit de corps, that commands respect even at this distance. The same can be said of Jacques Soustelle, the brilliant, passionate proconsul who was, in the end, almost driven mad by the feeling of having been betrayed from Paris. When the pied-noir coup took place in Algiers, and was proclaimed from the balcony, it was announced—in a sort of perverse hommage to a degenerated Jacobinism—by a “Committee of Public Safety.” In a comparable parody of anti-imperialism, the rightist mob in those days of May 1958 made one of its first acts the torching of the U.S. Cultural Center in Algiers.

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Christopher Hitchens is a contributing editor of The Atlantic and a columnist for Vanity Fair. More

Christopher HitchensFor nearly a dozen years, Christopher Hitchens contributed an essay on books each month to The Atlantic. He was the author of more than ten books, including A Long Short War: The Postponed Liberation of Iraq (2003), Why Orwell Matters (2002), God Is Not Great (2007), and Hitch-22 (2009). He was a contributing editor to Vanity Fair, and wrote prolifically for American and English periodicals, including The Nation, The London Review of Books, Granta, Harper's, The Los Angeles Times Book Review, New Left Review, Slate, The New York Review of Books, Newsweek International, The Times Literary Supplement, and The Washington Post. He was also a regular television and radio commentator.

Hitchens began his career in England, in the 1970s, as a writer for the New Statesman and the Evening Standard. From 1977 to 1979 he worked for London's Daily Express as a foreign correspondent and then returned to the New Statesman as foreign editor, where he worked from 1979 to 1981. Hitchens has also served as the Washington editor for Harper's and as the U.S. correspondent for The Spectator and The Times Literary Supplement. From 1986 to 1992 he was the book critic at New York Newsday. He also taught as a visiting professor at the University of California, Berkeley; the University of Pittsburgh; and the New School of Social Research.

Born in 1949 in Portsmouth, England, Hitchens received a degree in philosophy, politics, and economics from Balliol College, Oxford, in 1970.

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