A French Quarrel

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

By Christopher Hitchens

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.

By then, however, the curtain was already falling. The Anglo-French collusion in the 1956 invasion of Egypt, with its calamitous outcome, had not only written finis to European colonialism in the Arab world but impelled Washington to adopt a course that implicitly accepted independence as inevitable. Given the strong, if mainly rhetorical, support of the Soviet bloc for the Algerian Front de Libération Nationale (whose forerunner was founded on the day that Dien Bien Phu fell, and which had in its ranks hardened soldiers who had once fought under French colors in Indochina), all that was lacking was a French statesman who could see the need to disembarrass his country of those who ostensibly were the most devoted to it. The man who would perform this brilliant political—and rhetorical and emotional—feat had, as we know, been waiting for the call for a long time, and Horne does well to keep him offstage until almost halfway through this lengthy book. Charles de Gaulle could not be outshone by anybody who wished to speak of the destiny of France and the French, and his contempt for the Algerian right went back all the way to the Vichy regime, which it had supported. (His disdain for treason cut both ways: he could never bring himself to utter a good word about the quarter of a million or so harkis, those Algerian Muslims who took the side of France and paid a dreadful cost for it.)

Like the good historian he is, Horne leaves open the question of whether all this was as inevitable as it now appears. He tends to assume the long-run victory of colonial insurgencies and the near impossibility of defeating them—using the IRA of the 1970s as an example that now seems anachronistic—but he concedes that there were several moments when the FLN was nearly crushed, illuminates the deep divisions within its ranks that at several points were almost lethal to it, and reminds us almost casually that oil was not found in Algeria until 1958 and that even while it was negotiating with the rebels, France was exploding its first nuclear devices in the Sahara. Yes, indeed it might have been otherwise, as de Gaulle was forced to admit when, himself besieged by strikes and riots ten years after the Algerian coup had provoked his own seizure of power, he was obliged to fly secretly to Germany and beg for the loyalty of the mutinous generals he had exiled to NATO.

This is not the only way in which Algeria continued to haunt France, and continues to do so. There are now some 5 million people of Algerian provenance living in France, many of them strongly attracted to Islamic fundamentalist ideas. Their presence is rejected by a large and growing neofascist party led by a brutish veteran of the Algérie française movement named Jean-Marie Le Pen. During the civil war in Algeria in the 1990s, when the FLN and the army were able to repress an Islamist insurgency only by employing the most pitiless measures, an Air France plane was hijacked by militants who planned to crash it into the Eiffel Tower. (One wonders how different things might have been if that action had inaugurated our new age of transnational suicide-murder.)

In a much-too-brisk introduction to this new edition, Horne makes some rather facile comparisons with Iraq. The initial analogy does not hold at all: there is not a huge white-settler population in Mesopotamia; the United States does not consider Iraq to be a part of its metropole; the violence there is mainly between Arabs and Muslims, while the large Kurdish minority—loosely comparable perhaps to the Kabyle or Berber population of Algeria—fights stoutly on the American side. Moreover, it would be insulting to compare the forces of al-Qaeda and revanchiste Baathism to the FLN, which made consistent appeals to the discrepant ethnic groups in its country and which even asked for—and often got—support from the large Jewish community, whose members had suffered at the hands of the colonial right. Envoys from the al-Zarqawi school are furthermore unlikely to be received—as were the tough and often brilliant diplomats of the FLN—at the United Nations, whose headquarters and personnel in Baghdad they blew up. In Horne’s bare and scrupulous account, it is the nihilistic tactics and propaganda of the colonialist Organisation de l’Armée Secrète that put one in mind of the bin-Ladenists. He emphasizes the problem of torture, which has indeed been allowed to work its poison on American policy in Iraq, but his own very exhaustive discussion of the way that this horror influenced Algeria makes it plain that official cruelty was a stern principle as well as a universal practice, and that this was not even denied, let alone punished. It would have been far more absorbing had he devoted his considerable expertise to answering the question, How was it that Algeria in the 1990s became the first country to defeat a full-scale jihad and takfir rebellion, which had at one point threatened to overwhelm the entire state and society? In other words, this is no longer a question of the world being privileged to observe French quarrels, and perhaps allowed to participate vicariously in them; it is more a matter of understanding one of the many origins of a current and permanent crisis.

Horne is a mild British Tory with a true feeling for France but a rather limited understanding of the “left.” However, one of his recurrent tropes did stay in this reviewer’s mind. He writes often about the honorable role of the secular and democratic forces, in both France and Algeria, that attempted to prevent and then to alleviate a war of mutilation versus torture, and of gruesome mutual reprisal. The world chooses to remember Albert Camus as the foremost personality among these, but Horne gives us many important reminiscences of Messali Hadj and Ferhat Abbas, and other brave Algerian figures (not “moderates,” in the current patronizing argot) who might, if they could not have stopped the war entirely, have prevented it from taking a savage form that in some ways still persists. Must such people always lose? It is a question that this generation, too, will have to face—and have to answer.

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