Al-Ahram Weekly On-line
11 - 17 January 2001
Issue No.516
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French troops in Algeria
French troops in Algeria

"C'est dur, Henri"

"Bring in Audin," Charbonnier said, "he's in the other building."
Erulin continued to hit me, while the other one watched the spectacle, sitting on a table. My glasses having long since been lost, my short-sightedness reinforced the sense of unreality, of the nightmare that I felt and against which I tried hard to fight out of fear that my willpower would eventually break.
"Audin, tell him what's waiting for him. But spare him yesterday evening's horrors."
It was Charbonnier talking. Erulin wrenched my head up. Above me I saw the pale and haggard face of my friend Audin looking at me as I trembled on my knees.
"Go on, tell him," Charbonnier said.
"It's hard, Henri," Audin said. And he was taken away.
Erulin pulled me up sharply. [...] He thrust his face close to mine, practically touching mine, and screamed at me "You're going to talk! Everyone has to talk here! We fought in Indochina -- that'll help you to know what we are. It's the Gestapo here... You've written articles on torture, you bastard? Right, well now it's the 10th DOP that's going to do it to you."

From La Question (1961) by Henri Alleg, now re-issued as part of the national debate in France on human-rights violations during the Algerian War, 1954--1962.


France confronts its past

La Question (The Question), Henri Alleg, Les Editions de Minuit: Paris 2000. pp111 (first published 1961);
Ratonnades à Paris précédé de Les Harkis à Paris(Brutalities in Paris preceded by The Harkis in Paris), Paulette Péju, La Découverte: Paris 2000. pp200 (first published 1961);
On a torturé en Algérie (We tortured in Algeria), Jean-Pierre Vittori, Paris: Ramsay, 2000. pp230

Between 1954, when the Algerian uprising against French colonial rule broke out, and 1962, when Algeria became an independent republic, some two million French soldiers crossed the Mediterranean to fight against the FLN's (National Liberation Front) guerrillas in an operation that marked a generation. Most of these soldiers were conscripts. In Paris, the developing war in Algeria led to the fall of six prime ministers, the collapse of the IVth republic, the return of General de Gaulle to power at the head of the Vth republic -- a vehicle of his own creation -- and near civil war following an attempted right-wing coup in Algiers.

During the war, atrocities were committed on both sides, and after it, with the general amnesty declared at Evian as part of its negotiated settlement, many of these were officially forgotten. France turned to interior self-modernization, while Algeria began a process of nation-building under the tutelage of the victorious FLN.

More recently, however, there has been a move to disinter the past in the wake of recent, well-publicized revelations in France concerning the extent of human-rights violations, specifically the torture and murder of those suspected of being members or sympathizers of the FLN, by the French army in Algeria and by the authorities in France itself. In recent months both the French president, Jacques Chirac, and the prime minister, Lionel Jospin, have referred to these reports, mostly stressing the need to consider them in their historical context and talking of the need for "national healing" to take place. "Let history do its work," said Chirac, interviewed recently on the television channel TF1. Former generals have also appeared on television admitting that they used torture to interrogate suspects during the Algerian War.

With the official records of the period remaining largely closed, however, and with those committing them never having been held accountable either for their orders or for their acts, other voices have been a lot less diplomatic than have those of the political establishment. It is against this background of French national debate that the three books under review here have either been re-issued -- Henri Alleg's classic The Question and Paulette Péju's two press reports on brutalities committed at the time in Paris (both 1961) -- or published for the first time, as is the case of the journalist Jean-Pierre Vittori's "interview" with a former torturer, We tortured in Algeria.

On 17 October 1961, while, as the late Paulette Péju puts it in her account of the time, Ratonnades à Paris, Parisians "queued at the doors of cinemas, pushed open restaurant doors, opened oysters, started to have fun," a demonstration started by Algerians resident in Paris against, among other things, the racist character of the curfew imposed upon them by the préfecture de police (the police department) and by the local préfet, Maurice Papon. Under the terms of this curfew, no Algerian was to be in the streets of Paris or its suburbs between 8.30pm and 5.30am. Since the demonstration was due to begin at eight in the evening in central Paris, there was a clear risk of the demonstrators contravening the decree.

However, as Péju's other pamphlet originally published at the same time, Les Harkis à Paris, makes clear in graphic and often revolting detail, the curfew was not the only thing that the Algerian population of Paris had to complain of. Originally recruited from the Algerian population to support French military and police action in Algeria, squads of harkis were later also introduced in Paris to, according to Péju's pamphlet, "break the FLN in metropolitan France by organizing a parallel, clandestine police network" that would "operate on the margins of legality, outside all control, surrounded by an absolute 'discretion'" concerning its para-legal acts and methods and its very existence.

"It was to remedy the 'softness' of the French police that it was decided to import into France the methods that had been used during the 'Battle of Algiers'... by calling upon the 'specialists,'" Péju writes, and those methods could include the kidnapping, torture and killing of those suspected of supporting the FLN.

Thus, when the Algerians demonstrated on the night of 17 October 1961 they had both the curfew and a series of disappearances and violent police acts to complain of. Despite the peaceful character of the demonstration, the authorities acted with extraordinary violence to suppress it: despite the news black-out of the time and the official denials, it seems clear that "tens" of Algerian demonstrators died at the hands of French police in central Paris, while many more "disappeared", their bodies found floating in the Seine or hanged in nearby woods, these murders being explained at the time as the result of internecine conflict within the FLN.

Henri Alleg's short pamphlet The Question, also from 1961, has also recently been republished in France in its original format. Alleg, editor of the Algerian newspaper Alger républicain between 1950 and 1955, when it was banned, described here as being "the only newspaper to open its columns to every Algerian republican and democratic political tendency," was arrested in June 1957 in Algiers on suspicion of supporting the FLN. In The Question he describes his subsequent torture at the hands of the French military.

Banned at the time of its first publication, as were Péju's pamphlets, The Question is one of the best known of all first-person accounts of practices alleged to have been endemic in French Algeria in the late 1950s. Not only does Alleg give an effective description of the actions of the French paramilitaries and of their contempt for human rights, his text also describes a meeting with the young French academic Maurice Audin in the torturer's cell.

Audin, a lecturer at the University of Algiers, "disappeared" following his arrest in 1957 and his body was never found. It was only in 1963 that it was admitted that he was dead. Investigation by the historian Pierre Vidal-Naquet and by the "Audin Committee" set up by Audin's wife, who refused to believe the official accounts of his disappearance, later showed that he had been strangled by a French paramilitary. In Alleg's pamphlet, which is an important historical document from the war, Audin appears simply to say "It's hard, Henri," having been brought in to tell Alleg what to expect from his interrogators.

Finally, there is On a torturé en Algérie (We tortured in Algeria), a first-person account by a former French soldier of his actions during the Algerian War, "witnessed" by the journalist Jean-Pierre Vittori. The anonymous author of this text, who apparently "dictated" it in the company of Vittori during the course of more than 250 meetings, describes his recruitment to the euphemistically named Centre de coordination interarmées (Armed Forces Co-ordination Centre) in Algeria and to a Dispositif opérationnel de protection (DOP, Operational Protection Unit), giving details of how these mysterious units operated and of official attitudes towards them.

"The army has chosen you for a confidential mission," he is told. "Your officers will give you all additional information at the necessary time."

All these books have been published at a time of national debate in France concerning events that happened 40 years ago. Vittori, for his part, refers to Jospin's response to recent calls for the official "recognition" of, or even "apology" for these events, which has been a guarded one of saying that an investigation of the past will strengthen "the national community by allowing it better to draw the lessons of the past in order to build the future." Vittori also notes that "infractions committed within the framework of operations for the maintenance of order" in Algeria benefited from an official amnesty in 1962.

François Maspero, writing on Paulette Péju's pamphlets in a "postface" appended to the new edition and first published in Le Monde in 1999 as "Mr Papon's Crude Lies," takes issue with the then Paris préfet's account of his police force's actions against the Algerian demonstrators in October 1961. "It is false to pretend," Maspero says, that the orders for such brutality "were not given from the very top", or that the evidence of them assembled by Péju and by Elie Kagan, a photographer, was nothing more than propagandistic "montage".

Papon is now in prison for his involvement in the deportation of French Jews to Nazi death camps in 1943 under the Vichy regime, of which he was a senior official. However Maspero for one seems not satisfied that all has been done to lay the past to rest. "To attribute the crimes committed that day to Maurice Papon alone would be simplistic," he writes. "Whatever the powers of a préfet de police, their preparation comes from above... Once again, Maurice Papon has been used as a scapegoat."

Reviewed by David Tresilian

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