Saturday,25 November, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1126, 13 - 19 December 2012
Saturday,25 November, 2017
Issue 1126, 13 - 19 December 2012

Ahram Weekly

Fifty years of Algerian independence

This year marks 50 years since Algeria’s independence from France, with the anniversary being marked by exhibitions and other events in Paris, writes David Tresilian

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Al-Ahram Weekly

Fifty years ago this year the Algerian war of independence against France came to an end with the signature of the Evian Accords that marked the end of 130 years of French colonial rule in Algeria and drew a line under eight years of an often bloody independence war.
On 1 November, 1954, attacks across Algeria marked the beginning of the independence struggle, which only ended in July 1962 with the country’s formal declaration of independence from France. In the meantime, attitudes had hardened alarmingly on both sides, and the violence had led to a series of terrible atrocities. In the French case, the war also led to the collapse of the Fourth Republic and the return to power of General de Gaulle.
The commemoration of Algeria’s independence from France half a century after the signature of the Evian Accords was always likely to lead to the reopening of old wounds and the reappraisal of some of the most controversial episodes of the independence war. It was only in 1999 that France officially recognised that a “war” had taken place in Algeria at all prior to the country’s independence, preferring up until that time to talk of problems of public order or of the “events” in Algeria instead.
French use of torture as an instrument of policy in Algeria during the independence war has never been officially admitted, and a blanket of silence lies over the fate of the “harkis” – those Algerians who fought on the French side during the war and were subjected to revenge by their countrymen after the ending of hostilities. It was only in October this year that French president Francois Hollande finally “recognised with lucidity” the “bloody repression” of Algerian demonstrators that took place in Paris in October 1961 in the final months of the war.
In the light of this history and the passions to which its memory can still give rise, it has not been surprising that the commemoration of 50 years since the end of the war has given rise to only lukewarm gestures on the part of the French government, which has been keen to avoid re-opening controversies over the events leading up to Algerian independence.
Even the date of any official commemoration has been controversial, though a draft law currently finding its way through the French parliament would, if passed, make 19 March the national day of remembrance for “the civilian and military victims of the war in Algeria and the conflicts in Tunisia and Morocco,” the latter two countries having also been colonised by France though under different circumstances to those that reigned in Algeria.
“How to commemorate the war in Algeria,” asked one writer in the French newspaper Le Monde on 25 October. “Even 50 years after the question was first asked no consensus has yet been found on the answer… The left is for [the date of 19 March], and the right is against, and the government, aware of the passions to which the debate can give rise on both sides, has found itself in an embarrassing situation.”
However, this official embarrassment over how to commemorate 50 years since the end of the Algerian war has perhaps helped to license other, less official events. In Paris, these have included debates and exhibitions at the Institut des Cultures de l’Islam, a publicly funded institution in the city’s northern 18th district, once well-known for its population of Algerian origin, and at the Cité nationale de l’histoire de l’immigration near Vincennes, which will be hosting an ambitious exhibition on the lives of Algerians living in France during the independence war until May next year.

THE WAR SEEN FROM PARIS: It was not only Algerians who were directly concerned by the Algerian cause, and the Arab countries, notably Egypt, also actively supported the Algerian struggle for independence.
In France, the Algerian cause attracted the support of leading intellectual voices, among them those of Jean-Paul Sartre and, perhaps most famously of all, of the French psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Frantz Fanon, whose writings on racism, colonial violence and national independence gained ever-greater audiences over the decades that followed.
Fanon died in 1961 just a few months before Algerian independence, but his involvement in the Algerian struggle, signaled by influential works such as L’An V de la révolution algérienne, a collection of writings on the independence war, and, perhaps most of all, Les Damnés de la terre, a work on European colonisation and decolonisation, have meant that his name will be forever linked to the country.
His writings on colonisation and mental disorders, based on his professional work at the psychiatric hospital in Blida in Algeria, have long fascinated readers worldwide, and the Paris Institut des Cultures de l’Islam recently reminded visitors of them through the series of events it has been organising in his memory.
Among these was a welcome reshowing of Algerian filmmaker Malek Bensmail’s 2004 documentary Aliénations about the Constantine psychiatric hospital, a film which effectively links together mental disorders and the social and political circumstances of contemporary Algeria very much in the spirit of Fanon’s work in Blida some four decades before.
However, it is not high-profile figures such as Fanon or Sartre that are remembered at the Cité nationale de l’histoire de l’immigration’s exhibition, entitled Vies d’exil, des Algériens en France pendant la guerre d’Algérie, which looks instead at the lives of ordinary Algerians living in France during the eight years of the war.
The result is not only to remind visitors of the often difficult lives of Algerians living in France during the period, for social and economic reasons as much as for reasons directly relating to the Algerian war, but also to suggest ways in which issues first thrown up in the 1950s may have persisted more than half a century later.
According to historian Benjamin Stora, co-curator of the exhibition with Linda Amiri, the exhibition is the first ever to have been dedicated to the lives of Algerians in France during the independence war at a French national institution, and it necessitated much original research in public and private archives.
When the war broke out in 1954, there were some 220,000 Algerians living in France, most of them workers in industry, often single men and in many cases having only limited education. Over the years up until 1962 this number more than doubled, with male workers being joined by their wives and families, and the continuing war in Algeria, together with the difficulties of life in France, led to new and sometimes difficult-to-manage pressures.
However, if life in France presented difficulties for the growing numbers of Algerian immigrants, most of them concentrated in a handful of industrial districts such as those surrounding Paris and Lyon and in the north of the country, life in Algeria, too, was becoming more difficult for many.
As the exhibition explains, the attraction of France, despite the war and the deteriorating political situation, was the promise of jobs in the factories that were springing up to produce the goods needed for the country’s reconstruction after the Second World War. Algeria, by contrast, suffered from high unemployment, with overpopulation in the countryside leading to accelerating rural-to-urban migration and the uncontrolled growth of the cities. The Algerian economy, weakly industrialised and dependent on agricultural exports, was not producing the employment needed to support the growing urban populations.
Arriving in France in search of work, many Algerian immigrants gravitated to the shanty-towns that were beginning to grow up around French cities, notably west of Paris in what is now Nanterre. While factory work seems in many cases to have been relatively easy to come by, housing, especially for single men, was not, and many Algerian workers were reduced either to living in shabby boarding houses, some of them in northern Paris, or to taking their chances in the barrack-like housing available in the shanty-towns where there was sometimes no electricity or running water.
Writing in the catalogue accompanying the exhibition, various writers shed light on the legal status of the new Algerian immigrants and the realities of the life awaiting them in France. Algeria at the time was formally part of France, but Algerian Muslims, unlike the country’s communities of European origin, were considered to be “French subjects” rather than French citizens, at least as long as they remained in Algeria. Having crossed to France, guaranteed for the most part by the free circulation of persons between the two territories, they could find their legal status changed to French citizens, though citizens who could likely receive special treatment from the authorities of the time.
While it seems that in many cases they were discriminated against as far as housing and other services were concerned, the new arrivals designed what Stora describes as “their own model of integration” into French society, notably by working in French factories and joining French labour unions and sending their children, increasing numbers of whom were born in France as the 1950s wore on, to French schools.
The exhibition includes many photographs and other materials bearing witness to just this model of integration, along with testimonies contributed by some of those concerned.

THE GROWTH OF A COMMUNITY: No Algerian resident of France at the time could ignore the steadily escalating conflict in Algeria, and Algerian culture, long eclipsed by French colonialism, was finding a new confidence in parallel to the military successes of the FLN, the National Liberation Front that had emerged to lead the war against French colonialism.
These were the years when francophone Algerian writers such as Mohammed Dib and Kateb Yacine, both commemorated in the exhibition, began to publish their work, Dib describing life for the colonised in colonial Algeria in his trilogy of novels La Grande Maison (1952), L’Incendie (1954) and Le Métier à tisser (1957) and the origins of nationalist consciousness.  In his famous novel Nedjma (1956), first editions of which are on show in the exhibition, Kateb Yacine is often thought to have taken the francophone North African novel to a new level of sophistication, his subsequent career as a playwright in French, colloquial Arabic and Berber bearing witness to his restless creative instincts.
The exhibition includes material about the ways in which France’s growing population of Algerian origin was seen at the time in the popular press, with newspapers like France Soir and Le Figaro including racist articles that can only dispel the notion, sometimes heard, that the 1950s were a golden age of the French print media. Judging by the craven attitudes of some of the items presented here, this would seem to be far from the truth.
Interestingly, the exhibition also includes an examination, extended in the catalogue, of the presentation of Algerian and North African culture in the French museums of the time, this making up a kind of prior history to the debates on the presentation of non-European cultures in the recently opened Musée du quai branly in Paris, also sometimes criticised for its employment of an exoticising gaze.
Writing on this subject in the exhibition catalogue, French academic Hedia Yelles-Chaouche reconstructs the museological discourse of the time, apparent at the rather compromised Musée de la France d’outre-mer, inheritor of the former colonial museum, and the scientifically oriented Musée de l’Homme, inheritor of the famous Trocadero ethnological museum. Given the new visibility of Algerians in France and the force of their political demands, the general public, Yelles-Chaouche writes, was confronted with a new set of questions, hesitating between representations of Algerians as “natives in a museum” or “workers in a factory”.
While the exhibition has been able to gather together much of interest on such subjects from public archives, perhaps inevitably it has been less successful in finding material on some of the more painful events of the time, either because records were never kept, or were purposely destroyed, or because they are even now off-limits to all but the most determined of researchers.
Such considerations apply to the sometimes ferocious conflicts that took place between supporters of the FLN in France, this having taken over the nationalist movement in Algeria and eliminated its competitors, and other Algerian nationalist groups. The most important of these was the Mouvement national algérien (MNA), led by the veteran nationalist leader Messali Hadj, which sought not only to present itself as the legitimate representative of the Algerian people in competition with the FLN, but also wanted to bring about a negotiated settlement to the war.
MNA activists were eradicated in Algeria by the FLN, and in France sympathisers were intimidated or subjected to extortion. Because of the underground character of such struggles, the exhibition has had to rely on French police reports of “settlings of accounts” between Algerian activists, newspaper accounts, and anonymous complaints sent to the French authorities of threats and intimidation by the FLN.
Similar documentary challenges apply to the events of 17 October, 1961, when demonstrations by Algerians living in Paris were ferociously put down by the French authorities in what the French historian Pierre Vidal-Naquet, quoted here, describes as an “official pogrom”. However, in this case the problem for those researching the events, in which an unknown number of Algerian demonstrators, perhaps running into dozens, were killed by police in central Paris and 11,538 were arrested or interned, has been that the relevant French archives are still off-limits to most researchers.
According to Linda Amiri, the police archives were only opened to researchers in 2000, and articles in the exhibition catalogue suggest why. According to one of these, the actions of the Paris police chief at the time, Maurice Papon, were not investigated because of the amnesty laws that followed the end of the Algerian war and the absence of civil society organisations prepared to investigate that war’s darker episodes. It was only in 1998 when Papon was found guilty of involvement in the deportation of French Jews to Nazi extermination camps during the Second World War that the silence began to be lifted.
Carefully organised and bringing together much fascinating documentary material, Vies d’exil, des Algériens en France pendant la guerre d’Algérie provides a welcome opportunity to look back on the events of half a century ago before Algeria’s independence from France.
In its frank treatment of events that had perhaps previously been seen as off-limits, the exhibition shares in what may be a new openness in France to reconsiderations of the Algerian war. This has been apparent in the work of the current generation of French-Algerian filmmakers, among them Rachid Bouchareb, who has looked back on the Algerian history of the 1940s and 1950s in well-received films like Indigènes (2006) and Hors-la-loi (2010).
The former film looked at the Second World War through the eyes of Algerian conscripts in the French army, while the latter, a sequel, examined the beginnings of the Algerian war and its effects on Algerian workers in France.

Cité nationale de l’histoire de l’immigration, Paris, until May 2013.

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