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France and Algeria: A long History of wounded memories

France and Algeria: A long History of wounded memories

10.04.2016 . France.

“The Algerian War”: these words do not mean the same thing for all French people, and the memories that have not quite healed contribute to uphold a French form of throwback.

Pick up three French people at random: he is a Franco-Algerian, born to immigrated parents, and grew up in the big suburbs of Paris; you are the son of a “pied-noir” (French colonial born in Algeria) and a municipal councillor in a town, South-East of France; as for me, I am the heir to silence, daughter of a conscript who was sent in the Algerian Aurès mountains in 1956. Three generations, millions of French, are presently carrying the memories of the Algerian war and of its extreme violence: the grand-parents who lived through it, the parents for whom this topic remained brushed under the carpet, and the grand-children who are discovering the return of suppressed memories.

The fact is that the words “Algerian War” do not mean quite the same thing to all French people. The memories of the Algerian War are many, contradictory, in competition with each other; they are “Mémoires Dangereuses”, “Dangerous Memories”, according to the title of historian Benjamin Stora’s latest book, recently published by Albin Michel (2016). Stora himself was born to a Jewish family from the Algerian city of Constantine who got to know the trauma of exile in 1962, after Algeria got its independence.

“Most of the time, these memories are wounded, bitter, made of resentment and some unavowed desire for revenge

The link with Algeria depends on whether our parents were harki (Algerians who served as auxiliaries in the French army during the Algerian war), repatriated French, former conscripts, immigrated workers – but most of the time, these memories are wounded, bitter, made of resentment and some unavowed desire for revenge, such as what appeared during the recent controversy stirred by former French president Nicolas Sarkozy about the 19th March 1962 commemorations in France of the date of the Algerian independence.

Over the years, the national imaginary has become imbued with colonial memories of the Algerian war, though in different ways. On the one hand, these memories could be seen as the building blocks of the far-right National Front anti-Arab and anti-Muslims racism. On the other, the children of immigrated parents have structured their relation to France on them.

The far-right’s ideological bedrock

These unhealed memories breed excessive forms of antagonism. On the one hand they contribute to anti-North African extremism, and on the other, they breed identity radicalism. Benjamin Stora shows how colonial Algeria still provides the ideological bedrock on which the French far-right structured itself, and on which it continues to thrive. According to him, the National Front is “not only the spiritual heir to the 1934 rioters and of the pro-Nazi Vichy regime, but also of those who were right-wing dissidents of Algeria

National Front’s rhetoric draws on the colonial imaginary. The impossibility to assimilate people of Muslim culture or religion, the necessity to organize the legal inferiority of immigrated people, along with watertight separations between French nationals and non nationals, and the will to implement national priority when it comes to employment: all those National Front topics were evolved in the days of French colonial Algeria. In those days too, by virtue of the very colonial status of Algeria, Islam was deemed incompatible with full French citizenship. The issue of the compatibility of Islam with the French Republic was formulated at that time.

If Marine Le Pen, leader of the National Front, has moved away from the French pro-Nazi Vichy government tradition of anti-Semitism and fascism, she nevertheless tends to place herself in the continuity of French Algerian colonialism. “The transformation of the party by founder Jean-Marie Le Pen’s daughter (de-demonization) only focuses on the anti-Semitic, Vichy government segment of her father’s political representations, a segment from which she is genuinely distant, but Marine’s turn-about does not go as far as turning her back on the deep colonial roots of the National Front ideology” explains writer Alexis Jenni during his dialogue with Benjamin Stora in the foreword to “Mémoires dangereuses”.

Marine Le Pen’s turn-about does not go as far as turning her back on the deep colonial roots of the National Front ideology-Alexis Jenni

This obsession with the dangerous presence of Arabs (theory of the “Great Replacement”) already existed when Algeria’s European populations were feeling “besieged”. This “colonial” ideological bedrock is specific of the National Front, whose imaginary is founded on another history than that which is shared by other French parties. What’s more, in order to define the mindset of the National Front, Benjamin Stora suggests using the term “Southern”: just as happened to the United States during the Civil War, the Algerian War was lost in the South, but French Southerners wish to restore a policy of discrimination in the North, towards immigrated populations and their children.

Frenchs of Algerian origins: Seeming indifference and passionate ties

On the other hand, French families of Algerian origins are the custodians of the Algerian independence memory, though, according to Benjamin Stora, their relation to that historical moment was initially ambivalent – torn between a seeming indifference and passionate ties.

One of the reasons is that the fathers spoke very little about this (“You must carry on with life after terrible times”), thus opting to keep quiet about the settlings of accounts within the Algerian immigration in France between supporters of Messali Hadj’s MNA and those of the FLN, who will get to power at the time of independence.

As for their children, they first experienced a “memory that hesitated between and hovered above both countries” writes the historian. Then, memory woke up at the time of what was called “La Marche des beurs” (literally “the march of the Arabs – ie born in France” in French slang) in 1983.

These youths demanded all at once justice, equality and a full citizen status from France, while respecting and acknowledging the legitimacy of their fathers’ struggle against France when they fought for the independence of Algeria. The difficulty was to uphold those two different stories to which the National Front already send them back:

“I would like to tell a fair number of those arrogant Arabs”, exclaims Jean-Marie Le Pen in a meeting in 1988, “that some amongst them died to give them a fatherland, and not to have them come to ours”

As they are trying to get out of the social and cultural ghettoes, that same generation, that of the children, was then rejecting communitarianism. But the relegation of a big part of the populations of Algerian origin in the “suburbs”, on the outskirts, then produces the opposite effect: it plays back something of the former processes of social and ethnic segregation of the colonial days, between “natives” and full right French citizens. Alexis Jenni remarks that this logically led to situations of “separations and secessions”.

As they are re-investing Islam, the grandchildren are re-appropriating their history via religion rather than nationality. Often stigmatized by the rest of French society, they elaborate life projects, differences, and radical identities in order to find a sense of pride. For example, the blunt refusal to give up wearing the Islamic veil is a form of revenge towards the French colonizers who wanted to unveil Algerian women. Even if the re-Islamization of many Muslims does not have that meaning.

Something of the Algerian war is at stake today without us being always aware of it, according to Benjamin Stora

As he describes the relation to violence as a means to achieve one’s aims, the rise of identity extremes and the issue of the place of Islam with respect to the French Republic, Benjamin Stora shows that something of the Algerian war is at stake today without us being always aware of it.

These antagonistic memories have prevented us from building a common history. As a result, Les “Mémoires dangereuses” remind us that nothing is easier, than nourishing the war of memories,  hatred for the others, the surge of small screen ideologues because there is no firewall. This French throwback is made possible only because it has not been possible to formulate a common history of the Algerian war.

It is necessary to “broaden French history”, suggests elegantly writer Alexis Jenni, meaning that one can no longer remain within the confines of a “narrow Imperialist narrative” and that the history of North Africans must be part of French history. Not only is he right, but this is a matter of urgency. Even though this might not be enough.

Ariane Bonzon

Translation: Laurence Mazure

Photo: Kids in an Alger street on the 19.03.1962, the cease-fire day.

French original version (dates back to 19.03.2016) : La France doit construire une histoire commune de la guerre d’Algérie.



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