Ghosts of Algeria
ERIC MARGOLISMarking the 50th anniversary of the end of the frightful Algerian Independence War, French President Francois Hollande did the right thing Dec. 27 by recognizing the “suffering” France had inflicted on its former colony.
It was not the outright apology that many Algerians had demanded, but it was about as far as a French leader could go. Hollande acknowledged, “For 132 years, what Algeria had been subjected to was profoundly brutal and unfair. That system had a name: colonialism.”
France invaded and occupied Algeria in 1830 under the pretext that its ruler had struck the French ambassador in the face with a flywhisk. A million French, Spanish and Italian farmers eventually settled in Algeria, grabbing its richest lands. Algeria was proclaimed an integral part of the French state.
In 1954, pro-independence demonstrations erupted across Algeria. French settlers were attacked. France sent in notoriously brutal Senegalese colonial troops to rape and kill tens of thousands of Arabs and Berbers. The Algerian revolution had begun. As a student in Geneva, Switzerland, I became imbued, as youth will, by the cause of Algerian independence and a hatred for colonialism – an anger I keep to this day. As violence spread across Algeria, I organized student demonstrations supporting Algeria’s National Liberation Front (FLN) rebels and met with rebel leaders in Paris.
At the tender age of 17, I was targeted for death by La Main Rouge, a shadowy group of assassins and bombers run by French Intelligence. Fired up by the unambiguous passion of youth, I sought to join FLN guerillas fighting in Algeria’s rugged mountains. My determined mother somehow managed to meet with FLN leaders in Europe and get them to prevent me from going to what was a likely death.
The Algerian uprising set the tone for many other colonial wars: Indochina, Malaysia, Kenya, Afghanistan, Chechnya and Iraq. They were all marked by industrialized brutality, widespread torture, reprisals against civilians, masked informers, secret executions and the use of mercenaries. As the war dragged on, the French became increasingly dismayed by the crimes committed by its military and police. The use of torture spread back to the mainland, where there was a large North African population. In short, France, the cradle of liberty, human rights and reason, was befouled by repression and torture. The French Foreign Legion that did a lot of the fighting in Algeria was filled with officers and men of the former Nazi SS.
French troops and their native allies, known as “harkis,” committed countless massacres. The FLN was equally brutal in executing “collaborators” and settlers. Bombs, throat slashing and electric torture became the hallmark of the war for Algeria. Not long after France’s military had been defeated in the bloody, ugly colonial war in Indochina, it became deeply corrupted by the Algerian conflict. America is reliving this dark period today in Afghanistan as the torture and killing of civilians becomes the norm.
After President Charles de Gaulle called for an end to the war and freedom for Algeria, parts of the French armed forces and Legion, led by neo-fascist officers, mutinied. I vividly recall standing at Place de la Concorde and feeling the sizzling tension as loyal army and police units prepared to fight off an airborne invasion from France’s revolting army in Algeria. The original version of the marvelous film, “Day of the Jackal,” depicts the plots by extremist officers to assassinate de Gaulle during this time.
In 1962, I watched, horrified, as a demonstration by Algerians was crushed mercilessly by French CRS riot police. Some 200 or more Algerians were beaten to death in the street and thrown into the Seine River.
That same year, the wise de Gaulle finally made France renounce its colonial pretensions and grant freedom to Algeria.
We who supported the freedom struggle were elated. But true to the old adage, “the revolution devours its own young,” the leaders of Algeria’s once noble cause were almost all consumed by poisonous rivalries, murdered, jailed or exiled.
Algeria’s victorious revolutionaries became even more brutal and rapacious than their former French rulers. Today, military-ruled Algeria has one of the world’s worst human rights records. Its income from oil and gas is secreted abroad, leaving little for its surging population.
France’s colonial legacy haunts it: five-to-six-million impoverished, neglected North Africans living marginal existences.
Eric Margolis is a veteran U.S. journalist.