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.

After basic training, I was seconded to a cushy job at the press office of the Ministry of War, where I spent my days – i.e. a part of my mornings – reading and clipping the juicy and mostly critical pieces that British and American journalists were writing about French affairs. Tom Brady, for example, the New York Times correspondent in North Africa, incensed an assortment of colonels and ministerial minions, who, like most of their compatriots, hadn’t got a clue what was brewing in Algeria. They honestly thought it was a special case – unlike Tunisia or Morocco, which was by then on its way to independence. To ease our conscience, my friend Michel Oriano, another conscript working in the press office, and I helped to organise a protest Mass in Saint-Sèverin Church in the Latin Quarter. Unwisely, we used the War Office phones and files to summon reporters. Very jolly it was too. Never have so many Trotskyists attended Mass, at least in Paris. When we presented the cuttings to Captain Boutron, the CO of the press office and a charming, fairly liberal officer, he was puzzled by the number of journalists who had attended this odd religious service. How on earth did they know it was taking place?

Soon afterwards, I was sent to the Riff mountains in Morocco for the tail end of another lovely little war. Nothing very serious. There, French governments and the electorate were prepared to cave in. With only a small European population, Morocco was a protectorate, not a sacred ‘part’ of France. When I got my marching orders, I went to Sartre for advice. He was the next best thing at that time to a father, a guru in my progressive Pantheon. Should I desert, I asked him solemnly, just to line up my convictions and my actions? A glass of whisky in one hand and Lenin in the other, he answered that I should not: I was to join my battalion and agitate among the soldiers like a good Bolshevik. I wasn’t even a Communist. During the conversation, a possibility arose: suppose I got killed? Simone de Beauvoir, who was there, thought that worth considering. Sartre’s reaction was neat and sweet: my death would be unfortunate but, he predicted cheerfully, I wouldn’t be killed. Thus encouraged, as well as ideologically blessed, I went off to Casablanca.

In no time at all I saw my mates in B Company turn racist, even some of those who had paraded on the Champs Elysées shouting anti-war slogans only a few weeks before. Few French soldiers were killed or wounded during military operations in the Riff. There were some casualties among Foreign Legion troops: they didn’t hit the headlines in Paris. I did as I was told. We were on the border of French and Spanish Morocco. Seeing that I was not enthusiastic about our presence there, a group of Moroccan farmers suggested I desert. I declined their warm offer to help me escape. In firefights, I aimed at the sky. When two months’ leave fell due, I extricated myself and was posted back to France to sit the concours that would allow me to become a secondary school teacher. Unlike the few deserters or conscientious objectors who, in those days, were shoved into military jails, I hadn’t been very courageous.

When I was demobbed, I published a realistic antiwar novel about my time in the Army, but I must have thought this insufficient to atone for my behaviour, since I also helped Francis Jeanson, the legendary founder and chief of the network that supported the Algerian nationalists in France. Jeanson was a philosopher; and he knew Algeria. He had decided to give practical and illegal assistance to the Front de Libération Nationale, now leading the struggle against the French and, at the same time, liquidating a rival organisation, the Mouvement Nationaliste Algérien. For Jeanson and his friends, who are the subject of Evans’s book, words were not enough. They printed antiwar leaflets, provided flats for FLN cadres throughout France, carried money and sometimes arms. When Henri Curiel, a suave Egyptian exile and one of Jeanson’s lieutenants, asked me to transport submachine-guns and revolvers, I demurred. That, I felt, would have been tantamount to shooting French soldiers in the back. It didn’t occur to me that one bought arms with money. I’m glad to learn from this book – and other sources – that I was not alone in my well-meaning but idiotic and hypocritical notions.

I gave up supporting the network after a curious expedition to Geneva, from which we drove back to France with some Algerian leaders: quite a few of the men and women I saw in Switzerland seemed to me stark raving mad. Nor was I amused to find out that flats lent to the network by some of my friends in Paris, allegedly for important secret political meetings, had been used for wild parties. There was a tragicomic, apocalyptic, let’s-get-(metaphorically)-stoned-for-tomorrow-we-die atmosphere that didn’t suit me. I also felt that Jeanson was not sufficiently security conscious, whatever Martin Evans may say. He would arrange to meet in posh literary bars, in the middle of Saint-Germain, even when he knew the police were after him. ‘They won’t look for me here,’ he would say, ‘it’s too obvious.’ Puritanically, no doubt, I also thought he drank too much and that his taste for bourbon was too expensive. In short, I have nursed a sceptical view of the network.

My opinions have little representative value and, unfortunately, the same can be said of Martin Evans’s book: it sums up the attitudes of 49 members of the network and its branches; yet, between five hundred and a thousand people altogether were involved. They were largely from the bourgeoisie, but nonetheless diverse: university lecturers, secondary school teachers, priests and parsons, actors, directors, disenchanted Communists, Trotskyists, divorcees, bigamists, anarchists, Catholics, Protestants, Jews. In selecting his sample, Evans takes the high moral ground. He avoids the adventurers and cranks, some very ideological, some down to earth, who found their way into the network and says nothing of the taste for illegal kicks that I often detected. As for their motivation, it is always highly commendable: almost everyone he interviewed seems to have been driven by the democratic principles of the French Revolution and the example of the Resistance. Psychological motivations are formidably abstract here, yet militants never live by bread or principles alone.

Evans’s title, The Memory of Resistance, is misleading: between 1940 and 1944 those who were involved in the French Resistance, about two hundred thousand very active participants, ran the risk of torture, or the firing squad, or deportation to Buchenwald or Auschwitz. However heroic and committed, the Jeanson faithful were never in danger from the Gestapo or the SS. It was the Algerians, not the network, who had a rough time at the hands of French officialdom. I prefer Evans’s milder subtitle, even if 1955 or 1956 might be more accurate as an initial date.

The book is based on interviews: ‘André Mandouze said ...’, ‘Paule Bolo explained ...’ All these characters use the same wooden style. I’ve met some of them and I can’t believe they’ve become that dull with age. Evans has a tendency to take ‘memories’ at their face value. All witnesses, and especially those who feel they have played a historic role in events like the Algerian struggle, tend to glorify their past. I can’t understand why some of these interview-portraits are not developed further. Jeanson himself is certainly worth more than three pages: a dedicated man, who suffered acute bouts of TB, he was nervous and provocative – a romantic, pig-headed character. Before he embarked on the creation of an FLN network, his main claim to fame lay in having savaged Camus in an article for Les Temps modernes. Gérard Chaliand’s views would also be worth looking into further. Now a specialist in geopolitics, strategy, guerrilla warfare and other fascinating subjects, he talks about that period of his life with more humour than is found anywhere here. For some reason the regulations of ‘oral history’ require all witnesses to be equal; but some are more intelligent, interesting and informative than others. Oral history, a cocky and naive ‘science’, is simply too credulous.

Evans is at his best when analysing opposition to the war as a reaction against the lamentable Algerian policies of traditional left-wing parties. The Socialists disgraced themselves in 1957, becoming genuine warmongers after promising peace. Robert Lacoste, in charge of Algerian affairs under Guy Mollet, then still Président du Conseil (or Prime Minister, as the post became under de Gaulle), was one of the worst. What caused these political pontiffs to become diehards? I remember interviewing Mollet years later. ‘When I went to Algiers in February 1956,’ he told me, ‘I was confronted with workers shouting Algérie française.’ They pelted him with tomatoes. He sided with the short-term interests of the ‘European’ working class against the needs of native Algerians. Or so he thought.

Meanwhile, the Communist Party, or at least its Stalinist leadership, trod a complicated line. Anti-colonialism was all very well, as they saw it, but the defence of the Soviet Union came first, which meant that, when Moscow found it necessary to get closer to Paris, the Arabs and the Kabyles had to be ignored. This tactical subservience was dressed up in historical theory before World War Two by Maurice Thorez, the unshakable PCF Secretary-General: Algeria, he asserted, was a melting pot of twenty races, ‘a nation in formation’. The Algerian nationalists were not amused. In the Fifties, the Party refurbished its ‘anti-fascist’ line of the Thirties. The Americans were the new ‘fascists’ and because de Gaulle was anti-American in some ways he won grudging acceptance from the Party. Under his Presidency, the Union Française which maintained Algeria within France was, at first, considered a progressive framework. Before de Gaulle came back to power, when Mollet asked to be granted ‘special powers’ in Algeria, the Communist deputies dutifully voted for him, and five hundred thousand soldiers conducted ‘law and order’ operations followed by a full-scale war. The PCF, always ready to spot ‘adventurists’ to its left, refused to condone desertions.

I remember taking part in a clandestine meeting of soldiers from various regiments: we were to organise and support an antiwar march of airmen around the 15th arrondissement. Significantly, Communist privates were in favour of the demonstration: a Communist second lieutenant, well attuned to the party line, was against. Evans brings out these confusions and shilly-shallyings very well. The Party had another problem: it saw itself as the vanguard of the working class; its cadres knew how xenophobic the proletariat could be (and, in electoral terms, still is today: Jean-Marie Le Pen heads the biggest working-class party in France). If in 1956 or 1958 the PCF had supported the Algerian nationalists too openly, it would have cut itself off from ‘the masses’ – or that was how the dialectical reasoning worked. During the Algerian war, only the small New Left parties such as the PSU (Parti Socialiste Unifié) managed to maintain some sort of coherence and decency. A lot of PSU sympathisers, particularly Christians, helped the Algerians.

Certain periods of history still rankle in France: the German Occupation and the Liberation, obviously, but even 1789 continues to stir up passions. The Napoleonic era, with Bonaparte torchbearer of the Revolution and oppressor of Europe, remains ambiguous. The Algerian war of 1954-62 is highly controversial. It’s a good thing to have outsiders lining up the facts, putting indiscreet questions and probing our nation’s collective bad conscience. One can reach a consensus about Charlemagne or Joan of Arc, but not about Pétain or de Gaulle. Even a lucid mind, a dispassionate philosopher and the most academic of our columnists, Raymond Aron, got very hot under the collar when the American Robert Paxton produced his pioneering study of the Vichy regime.

Pierre Vidal-Nacquet has said that the Jeanson network ‘succeeded’. What did it achieve? Its main activity was carrying money – which is why its members were called ‘les porteurs de valises’. I am not convinced the FLN needed that money. The sums collected from Algerian workers and shopkeepers in France could have easily been provided by the Arab governments who supported the FLN. The money was mainly a bond, a way of keeping Paris, Lille and Strasbourg Algerians in touch with the nationalist organisation – more a psychological weapon, in other words, than a financial one. Did the network build a bridge between the Algerian movement and a segment of French progressive opinion? A small one. Most Algerians, Arabs or Kabyles, have forgotten or never knew about the Jeanson organisation, while Algeria, as we know, did not turn out to be a benevolent, secular, socialist promised land, worthy of the French Left’s sympathies.

Few of Evans’s interviewees regret having helped the FLN. The author, who obviously has a great deal of sympathy for this micro-minority, points out that its actions ‘have never been officially legitimised’. How could they be, within the existing French legal system? Should the network members have been given veterans’ rights, like the soldiers who fought the Algerian nationalists in North Africa or, as Evans almost suggests, been awarded medals and pensions like members of the World War Two Resistance? Last year, to the astonishment and horror of French conservatives, the few surviving members of the International Brigades were accorded a kind of veteran’s status by President Chirac.

After 1962 a general amnesty was effectively granted to those of Jeanson’s friends who had been imprisoned, yet they have enjoyed no official acknowledgment or absolution. I would say that there is still, on the left as on the right, a sense that they placed themselves beyond the pale. They are skeletons in the historical cupboard – a touchy subject, rather like the dirty-tricks branches of the secret services. Many of the network comrades, like Henri Curiel, murdered in bizarre circumstances, thought they belonged to an élite: with a new, independent Algeria, a model socialist state in the forefront of an internationalist Third World, the revolution would be on the move again. In different circumstances, Jeanson and his followers might have been seen as untarnished heroes. As things stand, they deserve a few paragraphs in a chapter on messianic revolutionary idealism. Francis Jeanson used to say that the cause of the network may not always have been white, but nor, by any stretch of the imagination, was the cause of the people who supported the war, and the crimes and the injustices of l’Algérie française.