«Perceptions of France in Contemporary Algeria Natalya Vince, Queen Mary University of London Key words arabisant/francisant; the Berber question; ...»
Perceptions of France in Contemporary Algeria
Natalya Vince, Queen Mary University of London
arabisant/francisant; the Berber question; colonialism; Islamic Salvation Front (FIS);
law of 23 February; migration; National Liberation Front (FLN); pied-noir
Q. How are France and French culture perceived in contemporary Algeria and
A. Algeria achieved independence on 5 July 1962, after 132 years of French colonial
rule and nearly eight years of armed struggle by the Algerian people, under the banner of the National Liberation Front (FLN) and its National Liberation Army (ALN).
School textbooks in Algeria today emphasize the horrors of colonialism: the Algerian people had their land, property, language and culture taken away from them.
They were kept in a state of abject poverty and ignorance where they were never considered French citizens, but rather indigènes, or later, Français musulmans. The War of Independence between 1954 and 1962 only reinforced this image of the barbarity of France. Talk to nearly any Algerian person of a certain age about the war, and you will hear eye-witness accounts of the torture, destruction, rape and murder carried out by the French Army in their attempt to suppress the Algerian nationalist movement.
It might seem logical to conclude that, for Algerians, ‘France’ simply means a violent, chauvinist exploiter. Yet this is far from being the case. The relationship between France and Algeria, Algerians and the French is much more complex and ambiguous.
It is important to underline from the start that Algerian people at all levels of society are always very careful to distinguish between the French state and the French people. During the war, many of those who suffered most at the hands of the French Army also received significant support from members of French civil society.
Accused of planting a bomb in Algiers, FLN member Djamila Boupacha was brutally tortured after her arrest in April 1959, and as a result became a cause célèbre of French intellectuals such as Simone de Beauvoir. I recently interviewed a number of women war veterans in Algeria and they were all particularly keen to tell me about acts of individual kindness and assistance that they had received from French people during the war, as well as pointing out that a small group of French people in Algeria – often members of the Algerian Communist Party (PCA) – took up arms with the FLN. In the Museum of the Army in Algiers, there is a section of paintings dedicated to ‘French people who participated in the War of Liberation’.
Yet the dichotomy ‘nasty French state’/‘kind French individuals’ is also far too simplistic, because many Algerian people, during and after the war, respected the French state in both its founding ideologies and its institutions. That is to say, a state which promotes equality and meritocracy, and which has a highly developed system of social welfare and universal education. Baya Hocine, a 17-year-old FLN bomber condemned to death by the French authorities, kept a diary while imprisoned in the infamous Barberousse prison in Algiers in 1957. Hocine was one of the few Algerian women who had received an education under the colonial system, and in her diary she
talks about the morals that were instilled in her at school:
Even when I was very young I already knew the principles established by the French Republic of 1789, liberty, equality and brotherhood which have dominated the political and social landscape … France itself recognizes in its Constitution ‘the right of nations to self-determination’.
For many educated Algerians who were involved in the independence struggle, although they hated colonialism, they nevertheless still considered France to be the birthplace of the Declaration of the Rights of Man. Integrating the torture and arbitrary treatment that they were subjected to by the French Army with the egalitarian and humanitarian values supposedly indissoluble from the French Republic presented an intellectual problem, and it was a hard lesson to learn that France’s colonized peoples were the ‘exception’ to liberty, equality and fraternity.
Q. So how has Algerian independence changed perceptions of France?
A. In 1962, Algeria became a ‘Democratic and Popular Republic’. This title, however, has very little meaning in a country which since 1962 has remained in the hands of army generals under the banner of the FLN. Elections are fixed, dissent has been violently oppressed, critical journalists are imprisoned, and the best education, housing and jobs are reserved for those who are part of the elites that form the Algerian political system. And thus the light of French republican values still shines brightly, perhaps brighter still for those born after Independence who never directly experienced colonialism. Watching French TV channels, which are in nearly every Algerian home since the advent of satellite television in the late 1980s, Algerians see a country where fixing electoral results would provoke a scandal rather than a cynical shrug of the shoulders, they see nightly debates on TV where the freedom of speech is respected, they see a country which loudly declares that success and promotion are based on exams and merit, not on one’s wealth or family tree. And, of course, the famous French social security system, with its public housing, health care, child and unemployment benefit – whereas in Algeria, your family remains your only form of protection against illness and poverty. For those outside the privileged elite in Algeria, the French model might appear an attractive one.
And yet the reality of the ‘French Republican system’ can be quite a shock to Algerians who want to go to France to study, work, or even for a holiday. Already, the lengthy process which Algerians have to go through to obtain a visa gives a hint that they are not welcome. And the experiences of those Algerians who have gone to live in France – popularly known in Algeria as les immigrés – tell two stories. On the one
hand, when these immigrés return to Algeria on holiday, they seem like rich tourists:
the euro is a much stronger currency than the dinar, and the cost of living is much lower in Algeria. However, what this apparent wealth hides is that these immigrés have often spent eleven months of the year working extremely hard in poorly paid jobs – security guards, cleaners – to return to Algeria for a month and faire le show to their family and friends. For in France, Algerians, even third-generation French-born, will always be considered immigrés, described as ‘issued from immigration’ or ‘of Maghrebian origin’. Despite French anti-racism laws, an Arab-sounding surname still remains a major obstacle in renting an apartment or finding a better-paid job.
Moreover, for Algerians watching the news or discussion programmes on French TV, it is clear that French society views the Muslim religion with increasing suspicion. Algerians are painfully conscious that in recent years ‘Muslim’ is all too easily associated with ‘terrorist’, throwing them in with a set of extremist beliefs which the majority of Algerians abhor. In the 1990s, the Algerian people were among the first victims of the violence of Islamic fundamentalists, long before the 1995 Paris bombing, 9/11, or the Madrid and London attacks. Algerians are both irritated that France, Europe and the USA are only just realizing the danger that this radical minority represent, and frustrated that the West fails to distinguish between these violent fundamentalists and the vast majority of followers of Islam.
Of course, discrimination and prejudice are not a problem unique to Algerians living in France, but it is perhaps harder for Algerians to accept because they feel that they ‘know’ France. Algeria was the most ‘colonized’ of France’s colonies – it was considered a department of France and those of European origin made up a tenth of Algeria’s population in 1954. Algerians speak the French language, they are exposed to the culture, they have a shared history. In 2004, there were 40,000 people with dual Algerian-French nationality, often Franco-Algerian couples. Yet France sends out multiple and contradictory messages to Algerians, and Algerians are perhaps forced to accept that they will always be the ‘exception’ to France’s universal values of liberty, equality and fraternity.
Q. How important is the colonial history in shaping perceptions of France in Algeria?
A. Victims of colonial violence in Algeria are still alive to tell their stories both publicly and privately. Examples of atrocities committed by the French authorities during the colonial period and the War of Independence are well publicized in school textbooks, TV programmes and newspapers. Yet in Algeria today, France is reproached not so much for these acts of violence themselves, but because the French state has largely refused to publicly acknowledge them or officially apologize. Indeed, it was only in October 1999 that a law was passed in France officially renaming the years 1954–62 ‘the Algerian War’ rather than ‘operations in North Africa’. The conflict between France and Algeria has moved into the sphere of history and memory.
The 8th May 2005 witnessed the 60th anniversary of what is commonly known in Algeria as ‘Sétif’. While 8 May 1945 is celebrated in Europe as VE Day, in Algeria the date is indelibly associated with the massacre of thousands of Algerians in Sétif and Guelma (300km east of Algiers) by the French colonial authorities, following pro-independence demonstrations. The number of Algerians killed is generally estimated as between 20,000 and 30,000; the Algerian Government claims a death toll of 45,000.
Sétif is widely commemorated in Algeria, and yet 2005 was the first year that these events were recognized in the French press. The front page of the national daily, Libération read: ‘8 May 1945: The forgotten massacre of Algeria’. A few months earlier, on 27 February 2005, Hubert Colin de Verdière, French Ambassador to Algeria, signalled a milestone in official discourse by describing the massacres of 8 May 1945 as an ‘inexcusable tragedy’, an important symbolic gesture for Algerians although it still fell short of an apology.
Algerians, especially war veterans and those in academic circles, want France to recognize the suffering it inflicted on the people it colonized. For this reason, a law passed in France on 23 February 2005 has created a great deal of anger in the Algerian press and government, as well as among historians on both sides of the Mediterranean. This law declares that from now on, the school curriculum in France should recognize ‘the positive role of the French overseas presence, notably in North Africa’. The law appears to hail the return of a version of colonialism long banished from mainstream intellectual discourse, in which the oppression, exploitation and violence exercised by colonial powers are masked under the patronizing and derogatory idea of a ‘civilizing mission’. The idea that colonialism had any benefits in Algeria is one that is fiercely rejected by all levels of Algerian society, for whom 1830 marked the destruction of what had been a rich culture and an educated society.
For many Algerians, this law is evidence of the continuing influence of certain strands of the pied-noir community in France. ‘Pied-noir’ is the term used to describe French men and women born in Algeria, who were repatriated in vast numbers after
1962. Often these people were the most fervent supporters of the colonial system, with all its injustices and inequalities. Within this section of French society were those who formed the colonial administration, who requisitioned land from Algerian farmers, who exploited its labourers. Many pied-noir groups remain extremely bitter by what they see as General de Gaulle’s ‘abandonment’ of Algeria in 1962 and sustain a nostalgic vision of ‘French Algeria’. The pied-noir lobby is a marginal but influential group in French politics, and now there is a right-wing government in power it has space to flex its political muscle. Such developments are viewed with apprehension in Algeria. The Algerian Government and people want to deal with a France free of both its colonial possessions and colonial mentality, not the France of pro-‘French Algeria’.
Many Algerians see France as ‘behind the times’ in its official historiography.
In a global culture where states are encouraged to recognize genocides committed in its name, to apologize for them, and to memorialize them, Algerians are still waiting for France to say sorry.
Q. How does the Algerian elite perceive France?
A. The Algerian elite is composed of the politicians who publicly represent the state and the army generals who, behind the scenes, have held real power in Algeria since Independence. In the absence of both democracy and a stable economy, the sole source of legitimization for Algerian politicians has been their status as veterans of the War of Liberation. Current president Abdelaziz Bouteflika, for example, was an officer in the FLN’s National Liberation Army at the age of 20. This goes some way to explaining why the Algerian President has recently been so outspoken in his criticism of the French law of 23 February 2005. Rousing the spectre of French colonialism is a way of resurrecting his status as the saviour of the Algerian people, and thus improving his popularity.
And yet Bouteflika’s attack on France is a rhetorical one. Maintaining close ties with France is essential to those in power both because of the major role that France plays in the Algerian economy, and because of the mutual interest that leaders in both countries have in the suppression of political Islam. Thus, while Algeria has always refused to officially join the International Francophone Organisation, in concrete terms of investment and cooperation, Algeria remains the most ‘francophone’ of France’s former colonies.
The position of many Algerian army generals in relation to France is somewhat delicate. Many fought on the side of the French Army for much of the War of Independence and changed sides late on in the conflict, making them suspect patriots for most Algerians. One of the most powerful army generals in Algeria, Khaled Nezzar, only deserted the French Army in 1958 – already halfway through the war. This explains why the army generals need more authentic war veterans as figureheads.