A Glass of Whisky in One Hand and Lenin in the Other

Olivier Todd

  • The Memory of Resistance: French Opposition to the Algerian War (1954-62) by Martin Evans
    Berg, 250 pp, £34.99, November 1997, ISBN 1 85973 927 X

In 1954 I was stationed near Versailles, doing my national service with the 93rd Infantry Regiment. I had been called up for 12 months, but like many young Frenchmen of that unlucky generation, I was kept in the Army nearly two and a half years owing to unforeseen ‘events’ in North Africa. We weren’t old enough to have joined either the Free French in Britain or the Resistance against the Nazis in France. In those easy Manichaean years, not having read Koestler or Orwell, some of us even wished we’d been able to fight with the International Brigades in Spain. We could only nurse our nostalgia, and, as French citizens subject to national service, we were forced to take part in the unsavoury end of the colonial adventure in North Africa. Some of us felt we were involved in the wrong conflict, on the wrong side.

We were the unfortunate, unwilling heirs of French history: the building of the Empire had been sanitised for us by our school books and teachers. The factual fog was pretty thick. We knew that in 1830, the Bey of Algiers had slapped a French consul in the course of an argument about debt. This was enough to whet the imperial appetite: Paris dispatched the Army to Algeria and a retaliatory expedition turned into conquest. In secondary schools, even the most liberal history masters underplayed the gruesome details of that conquest as it evolved into full-scale colonisation. At the Lycée Henri IV, my republican, democratic textbook (the popular Malet-Isaac) was embarrassed and pious: on the one hand, the White Man behaved atrociously; on the other, roads and hospitals provided the natives with ... Well, even Marx saw some positive aspects to colonialism. If it could be ‘constructive’ as well as ‘destructive’ in India, why not in Algeria?

In the early Fifties, the Left was pretty convinced that Algeria, at least, should stay in the French Union. After 1830, civil servants and settlers, often ‘poor white trash’, had poured in from France, Spain, Italy, Malta. In 1848, the country was reorganised into three French départements: the myth of a French Algeria, enshrined in law, became part of the collective unconscious. With time, a lot of time, a few generations perhaps, every native would be turned into a French citizen. Some Frenchmen are more equal than others, however, and there were limits to French universalism. The Arabs and Kabyles, of course, were not granted citizenship. For more than a century the settlers exploited the country while at the same time, thanks to massive subsidies from Paris, modernising it.

Apart from not allowing the ‘natives’ to take charge of their own affairs, the pieds-noirs, as they much later came to be called, made at least three significant mistakes. Most of them did not learn Arabic. Nor did they intermarry. Nor were they inclined to notice that educated natives, having been patient for more than a century, were in a hurry to obtain a few rights. Violent repression followed violent rebellion. In the early Fifties, around a million settlers, some of them wealthy, racist landowners, but most of them with a standard of living lower than that of their counterparts in France, lived alongside nine million natives. It was a potentially explosive situation.

In May 1954, the French were beaten at Dien Bien Phu: they ‘lost’ Indochina, wiped out politically and diplomatically, much more than militarily, as they would eventually be in Algeria. The same year a small group of Algerian nationalists launched an unpromising armed struggle. They were convinced there was no other way. On 1 November, they planted a few bombs, and blew up a bus in the Aurès mountains. Altogether, seven people were killed and 14 wounded: that started the revolution. In 1962, after a long and atrocious war, de Gaulle and the bewildered, exhausted French were forced to grant Algeria its independence.

Millions of young Frenchmen were sent out to ‘defend’ French Algeria. A few thousand behaved disgracefully: torture was often used to extract information from suspects, and not only by General Massu’s regular paratroopers, but by conscripts as well. More knew what was going on. Many are still alive but remain reluctant to speak about their experiences with ‘les bougnouls’ – much more so, I think, than Vietnam veterans about their dealings with the ‘gooks’. Martin Evans is absolutely right when he says that the subject of torture in Algeria has for many years been taboo in France. A lot of serious research is going on now, but the story has been slow to emerge. As we know, the huge silent majority of conscripts, or men from the reserves, did not revolt: most of them grumbled and a few hundred chose to desert or – in the case of reservists – refused to be called back to Algeria.

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