The 2015 Charlie Hebdo and November 13th terrorist attacks have once again placed laïcité, immigration, Islam, xenophobia, and national identity in France front and center.
Perceived threats to the French values of Liberté, Egalité et Fraternité have also contributed to rising tensions concerning French national identity, the presence of religion (primarily issues relating to Islam) in the public vs. private sphere, and the degree of recognition that should or should not be afforded to racial identity in a country that officially embraces a colorblind ideology.
At first glance, the history of colonialism in Algeria and the 1954-1962 Algerian Revolution for Independence may seem irrelevant in relation to current events and the societal issues presently affecting France.
However, memories of France’s colonial legacy, particularly in Algeria, have all but faded away and they continue to exist in the collective historical psyche of both France and Algeria.
The nationwide state of emergency declared by French President, François Hollande, in response to the November 13th attacks was one such remnant of the colonial era – a measure that remained unprecedented since 1961.
Memories of France’s colonial legacy, particularly in Algeria, have all but faded away and they continue to exist in the collective historical psyche of both France and Algeria.
The legal basis that would allow the French government to declare the 1961 and 2015 state of emergencies was originally passed in 1955; one year into the Algerian Revolution when the primary nationalist resistance party, the Front de Liberation Nationale (FLN), increasingly continued to gain strength.
As the Algerian ‘conflict’ intensified, the French government used loi n° 55-385 du 3 avril (Law No. 55-385 of 3 April; regarding the State of Emergency), 1955 to expand its military and civilian power in order to counter growing nationalist militancy.
Current French and international media highlighted this link between 1961 and the 2015 newly declared state of emergency:
- “The state of emergency precedes a law passed on April 13th, 1955. This state of emergency was enacted three times during the [Algerian] War: 1955, 1958 during a moment of crisis for the IV Republic and in 1961 during a military coup [against the French government by army generals].“– “Ce Que Nous Avons A Craindre de l’État d’Urgence” by Marius Loris, Nouvel Obs.
- “Since the Paris attacks on Friday night, France has been living under a nationwide state of emergency not seen since 1961, when army generals attempted a coup d’état during the Algerian war. On Monday the government could seek to extend the powers for several months.”– “France Under First Nationwide State of Emergency Since 1961” by Angelique Chrisafis, The Guardian.
Following the November 13th Paris terrorist attacks, The Atlantic and several other main news sources reported that “the attacks are the worst violence on French soil since World War II,” consequently forgetting the 1961 Paris Massacre when police murdered over 200 Algerians.
However, France 24, Washington Report on Middle Eastern Affairs, and FAIR (among others) addressed the seemingly forgotten 1961 massacre.
The Atlantic and several other main news sources reported that “the attacks are the worst violence on French soil since World War II,” consequently forgetting the 1961 Paris Massacre when police murdered over 200 Algerians.
On October 17, 1961, the Paris branch of the FLN organized a peaceful protest against a curfew that prohibited Algerians from being on the streets from 8:30 PM-5:00 AM. In order to ensure that the protest would remain peaceful, the FLN checked protesters for weapons.
Maurice Papon, the Prefect of the Paris Police and former Nazi collaborator who rounded up French Jews for deportation, ordered his forces to use violence against those who fled or resisted arrest despite his knowledge that this would be a peaceful demonstration.
An estimated number of at least 200 Algerians were beaten, shot, and thrown into the Sein during the brutal police repression. The following day, newspapers reported a death toll of less than 10 but in reality, the causalities were in the hundreds.
In 2001, the mayor of Paris, Bertrand Delanoe, commemorated a plaque that read: In memory of the numerous Algerians killed during the bloody suppression of the peaceful demonstration on 17 October 1961. The plaque is located on the Saint-Michel Bridge.
Reminders of France’s protracted colonial war manifested themselves in other ways as well. Manu Saadia, a journalist for Fusion, analyzed the implications of the fact that several of the perpetrators of the November 13th terrorist attacks possessed French citizenship,
“Friday’s attacks in Paris, reportedly carried out by ISIS-affiliated extremists, are part of this long history of post-colonial tension.
The attacks appear to have been directly related to the ongoing civil war in Syria. However, the French citizenship of at least some of the perpetrators reminds us that these attacks can hardly be disentangled from France’s colonial past.
That past, which has produced resentment and trauma on both sides of the Algerian War divide, still haunts the present.”
As the previous examples demonstrate, the legal, political and psychological legacies of French colonialism and the Algerian War clearly have not faded with time. If anything, current unrest in France has unearthed hidden animosities and tensions rooted in centuries of French colonial rule in Algeria.
Revisiting this colonial history, a period lasting over a century and a half from 1830-1962, will not provide a simple solution for the complex and often multi-faceted overlapping issues.
The legal, political and psychological legacies of French colonialism and the Algerian War clearly have not faded with time. If anything, current unrest in France has unearthed hidden animosities and tensions rooted in centuries of French colonial rule in Algeria.
However, it may provide the opportunity to gain a more nuanced understanding of the past’s impact on the present that will, in part, counter the oversimplification of issues concerning national, religious and racial identities.
The Author’s Recommended List of Books on French Colonialism in Algeria and the Algerian Revolution for Independence (Non Fiction):
- A Desert Named Peace – Benjamin Claude Brower
- A Dying Colonialism – Frantz Fanon
- A Savage War of Peace – Alistair Horne
- Algeria: Anger of the Dispossessed – Evans and Phillips
- By Sword and By Plow – Jennifer Sessions
- Colonialism and Neocolonialism – Jean Paul Sartre
- La Gangrene – Benjamin Stora
- La 7e Wilaya: La Guerre du FLN en France (1954-1962) – Ali Haroun
- Torture and the Twilight of Empire: From Algiers to Baghdad – Marnia Lazreg
- Only Muslim: Embodying Islam in 20th Century France – Naomi Davidson
- The Invention of Decolonization – Todd Shepard
- Uncivil War: Intellectuals and identity Politics During the Decolonization of Algeria – James D. Le Sueur
- Why the French Don’t Like Headscarves: Islam, the State, and Public Space – John Bowen
The Author’s Recommended Movies:
- Battle of Algiers
- Hors La Loi
- l’Ennemi Intime
- Loin des Hommes (English title: Far From Men)