Legacy of Algeria

Algeria remains one of France’s most valuable possessions during the colonial period. The country was a French colony for over a century until the early 1960s when nationalist agitation caused independence to be granted to the country. This form of revolt, which began gathering momentum in 1954 and lasted till 1962, is what became known as the Algerian War. Even though this war ended since 1962, the memories of the War are still present especially in France. Moreover, this war appears to be the most significant part of France’s involvement in Algeria.
This essay will therefore look at the legacy created in France as a result of their involvement in Algeria. The essay will also examine the huge debates and controversies created by memories of the war in France. Aspects of brutality by the French police will equally be examined.
Torture was a significant part of the Algerian and this aspect has sparked a series of debates and controversies in France ever since the war ended. During the more than one hundred thousand Algerians were tortured[1] by European born French police officers and pro-French Algerians who had been known to be very brutal when they handled matters relating to French Algerians in Paris. Several interrogation centers were created and the torture of Algerians by French auxiliary police was synonymous to these interrogation centers. Methods used where water torture, impaling on bottles and electric shocking.[2]  It was incidents like these that made the Algerian War to be labeled the most brutal in all colonial battles that France got involved in. In fact the conduct of the war welcomed a lot of criticisms from the French public without even bordering about the goals of the war. It is therefore no surprising that French men termed the war, “dirty war”.[3]

Torture was so common to the extent that General Paul Aussaresses, whom at the time of the war was working with the French Special Service in Algeria and  who took part in the battle of Algiers, which was aimed at hunting and destroying Algerian fighters acknowledged the use of torture when he held that,
Among the operations in which I participated, most led to interrogations.
Others to simple liquidation, which occurred on the spot. . . . [T]hose who arrived in Tourelles [an interrogation center] were considered to be so guilty that they did not leave alive. . . . [T]orture was used systematically if the prisoner refused to talk, which was often the case. Rarely were prisoners who were interrogated at night alive in the morning. If they talked ornot,  they were generally neutralized. . . . Summary executions were an integral part of the task of maintaining order[4]
The employment of torture by French police in the Algerian war created a significant impact in France, years after the War was over. To begin with, it sparked up a huge debate in France and the issue was whether torture was used during the Algerian war. This debate has been going ever since the war ended. For instance, in 1979, the issue about torture became so popular, to then that public opinion had to be sampled to see those who believed that torture was part of France’s colonial rule in Algeria. More than 50% of opinions sampled confirmed that they believe torture had been part and parcel of the Algerian crisis.[5] In later year the issue received more recognition to the extent that, opinion polls showed 94% of the population holding the belief that torture had been employed by French police during the Algerian War.
The legacy left behind by the Algerian had serious ramifications in French politics. The question on torture again received recognition for the role it played during presidential campaigns in France. This was the case of the presidential elections in France in France in 2002. During campaigns major candidates were demanded to justify their stance with regards to the use of torture Algerian war.[6] Majority of the candidates in this case were out rightly against torture.[7] In fact, ever since the war ended, the manner in which the war was handled has always aroused criticisms with emphasis placed on the use of torture. How ever, it is important to understand that French citizens have never really criticized the motive behind their involvement in Algeria. Instead, they criticize the manner in which the government reacted when things started going wrong in Algeria.
The Algerian case also left it trade mark in the legal department in France. This is because, years after the incident, some of the perpetrators of what has been considered as cowardly acts have been brought before the court. Moreover, trials of this kind have drawn a lot of attention from the press. A case in point is the trial of Maurice Papon, who was the brainchild behind the suppression of Algerian demonstrators. Papon was a government functionary in France’s possessions in North Africa during the 1940s and 50s
This case was presided over in Bordeaux by Jean Louis Castagnédés.[8]
During this trial, Papon asserted that he was never in support of the use of torture. He pointed out the he was never in control of the military, the main perpetrators of these acts, therefore, there was little he could do to stop them.[9] Even though Papon was freed for medical reasons, this case went further to strengthen the legacy of the Algerian situation in France. For instance the case pushed writers to work and in the process a number of works on Papon were produced. General works were also written on Papon and his trial. One of such works was marc Olivier Bruch’s scholarly study of the French administration under Vichy, titled Pour Servir l’Etat Francaise.
On the commercial level some of these works gained a lot of grounds. This could be seen in the steady variety of books, movies and television shows, which came out to help bring to light the degree of torture experienced during the Algerian adventure. One of these movies, perhaps the most commercially successful, titled Avoir Vingt ans dans l’Aures released in 1971 and the documentary La Guerre d’Algerie and a lot of other documentary revealed the hidden practices of the of the French army in Algeria.[10]
In fact Pascal Ory has tried to summarize central theme underlying most of the French movies and documentaries on the Algerian war when hen he writes, “French cinema did everything it could to give the image of the Algerian War as a ‘dirty war’” Also, another history of French movies holds the position that “Torture obsesses the cinema of the Algerian War.[11] Most of these movies and documentaries have gained a lot of grounds on the commercial level.
Another legacy left by the Algerian war in France has been the commemorations in France marking the 1961 massacre. This incident occurred when dozens of Algerians were peacefully marching in Paris on October 17 1961. These of Algerians were ruthlessly killed. During the early years of the French government acknowledged the need for regular commemorations to mark this incident. The most outstanding was that held on the occasion of the 40th anniversary. This event was commemorated with demonstrations, exhibitions, film showings, and a colloquium held in the National Assembly, with distinguished panelists and some of the survivors of the event.[12]
The legacy created by the Algerian questions in France has created a lot of controversy in France. For instance, national petition came demanding that the 1961 massacre be labeled a crime against humanity. This petition was welcomed by many intellectual elites amongst them were Pierre Bourdieu, Maurice Agulhon, Madeleine Rébérioux, Jacques Derrida. Such calls pushed the Paris City Council to affix a plaque on the Seine Bridge where several Algerians were dumped in to the river Seine on the day of demonstration. It even took time before the decision on what was to be written on the plaque. The wordings were carved on the plaque affixed on the left bank of the bridge crossing River Seine: To the memory of all the Algerians killed during the bloody repression of the peaceful demonstration of 17 October1961.”[13] Many human right groups and leftist have also welcomed the position that that the massacre be considered a crime against humanity.
Another area of controversy in the Algerian crisis is centered on the proper word to term it. The French never wanted to consider it a war, instead they less hard phrases such a move to maintain order have always been preferred. However, a new understanding stemming from the rising concerns of the occurrences during the conflict made the French parliament in 1999 to label the Algerian case a war. This new development seems to have weakened the stance of many with regards to the horrors of the conflict.[14] This indicates the impact created by the Algerian crisis in France if one considers the fact that the conflict has been a call for concern right in the French Assembly.
Another area of controversy has been on the impact of trials like the case of Maurice Papon. People have been asking questions on whether it is necessary to try somebody for a crime committed some fifty years back. The French government sees it different. For instance, France which is one of those countries championing the course of democracy and human has to do something keep her credibility towards these this course.
Moreover, it is imperative for trials of this kind to take place so that they could act as preventive measure for those who ever find their self in situations like the case in Algeria.
Above all, there has also been a huge debate on the impact trials of this kind could have at the level of pedagogy.
From the above, it is clear that the Algerian question has left a big scar on the French society judging from the memories of the war, which keeps circulating in France and among French people and Algerians. Moreover, some people still remain divided on certain aspects of the war and it is this situation that has sparked up controversies when talking about the Algerian war.
Cohen, William B. “The Algerian War and the Revision of France’s Overseas Mission”.
Project Muse.
Golsan, Richard J. “Vichy Afterlife” History and Counter History in Postwar France.
Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 2000.
[1] William B. Cohen, “The Algerian War and the Revision of France’s Overseas Mission”, Project Muse, 228.
[2] Richard J. Golsan, “Vichy Afterlife” History and Counter History in Postwar France (Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 2000), 167.
[3] Cohen, “The Algerian War ”, 229.
[4] Ibid, 232.
[5] Ibid, 230.
[6] Ibid, 236.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Golsan, “Vichy Afterlife”, 158.
[9] Ibid, 162.
[10] Cohen, “The Algerian War ”, 229
[11] Ibid, 229.
[12] Ibid, 234.
[13] Ibid, 235.
[14] Cohen 231

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