France Still Struggles With the Shadow of the ‘War Without a Name’

The brutal Algerian War killed hundreds of thousands of people—and deeply marks French politics and society to this day.

French troops in Algiers during the Algerian War
French troops in Algiers, Algeria, in 1956. AP

Sixty years on, the ghosts of the Algerian War still loom large over French politics, the country’s debate over immigration, and its relationship with Algiers. Emmanuel Macron, the first French president born after the end of the brutal colonial conflict, seems more inclined than any of his predecessors to “look history in the eyes” and has sought to heal the “wounds of the past.” But if the ghosts of the Algerian War continue to shape the conversation about France’s identity, it’s largely because the political class has decided to bestow upon the conflict—and its legacy—an outsized role.

The war, from 1954 to 1962, is back in the center of the French political conversation this year thanks to the release last month of a highly anticipated government-commissioned report meant to figure out how to bridge the rifts still existing within France and across the Mediterranean. The author, acclaimed historian Benjamin Stora, suggested plenty of symbolic measures, such as returning to Algiers the sword of a 19th-century resistance hero. Other recommendations included a better understanding and education of the war and French occupation in Algeria, which dates back to 1830.

The Élysée said it would take “concrete actions” based on the report, beginning with the establishment of a “memory and truth commission.” But, in line with Stora’s conclusions, it ruled out any official apology for France’s colonial past. Despite that pledge, which parroted a conservative battle cry, Macron and Stora immediately came under fire from the far-right, with members of Marine Le Pen’s National Rally party denouncing “yet another sign of weakness” and an attempt to declare a “memory war” on the French. 

Statements like these show just how divisive the issue remains in France today. The Algerian War was one of the most brutal conflicts in the history of decolonization. Hundreds of thousands of Algerians and about 25,000 French troops lost their lives. Crucially, by the time violence broke out, 1 million European settlers (the pieds-noirs, “black feet”) lived on Algerian land, which contributed to Paris’s reluctance to let go. The war was a vicious insurgency and counterinsurgency, with the Algerian National Liberation Front escalating a terrorism campaign and the French military resorting to the systematic use of torture to thwart the insurgency. The war only ended when President Charles de Gaulle, at first the hope of French hard-liners, took the painful step of negotiating peace with the insurgents and ending French occupation. 

Various groups affected by the Algerian War have cultivated their own memories, often radically at odds with one another.Since then, various groups affected by the conflict have cultivated their own memories, often radically at odds with one another. By the end of 1962, France was home to 2 million French war veterans, well over 1 million repatriated pieds-noirs, 150,000 harkis (Algerians who had fought alongside the French) and their families, and 500,000 Algerian immigrants—whose number would double by the 1980s. 

Stora estimates that about 7 million people currently living in France have ties with the country’s Algerian past—and few of them, or those in Algeria, seem happy with his final report.

Christian Fenech, president of the association Racine Pieds-Noirs, laments that “France has fallen into a trap set by the Algerian authorities,” which he claims Stora is seeking to appease with symbolic measures that essentially “go in the direction of repentance and apologies.” To this 58-year-old, whose parents left Algeria for the mainland just before his birth in 1962, the French state is avoiding more meaningful debates, such as over de Gaulle’s “disastrous” handling of the conflict. 

A prominent organization representing the harkis also criticized Stora’s recommendations for ignoring their long-standing demands, such as a full recognition of responsibility by France for disarming and abandoning these troops at the mercy of the National Liberation Front when the war ended, and for detaining those who made it across the Mediterranean in squalid camps.

In Algeria, too, most reactions have been far from enthusiastic. While he did not explicitly mention the report, a government spokesman recently called on France to recognize its “colonial crimes.” 

Then French Economy Minister and presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron greets Algerian Minister of Industry and Mining Abdeslam Bouchouareb in Alger, Algeria, on Feb. 13, 2017.

Then-French economy minister and presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron greets Algerian Minister of Industry and Mining Abdeslam Bouchouareb in Alger, Algeria, on Feb. 13, 2017. Soazig De La Moissonniere/IP3/Getty Images

Echoing this stance, Mohand Ouamar Benelhadj, interim secretary-general of the influential Organisation Nationale des Moudjahidine, which represents independence war veterans, dismissed most of the proposals as “details.”

“Our country was invaded by the French army, which committed countless abuses,” he said. “We were expropriated, exploited, enslaved. None of this is highlighted in the report.” He insists that the only thing that would really matter is something the Élysée has never been willing to deliver: a full apology for the entire period of French occupation.

That isn’t coming anytime soon—and the reasons why speak volumes about the shadow the war still throws over French politics.

After hostilities ended, the conflict was quickly brushed aside in the state’s narrative, with successive governments laying down what late historian Pierre Vidal-Naquet called a “pillow of silence” that lasted decades. Officially, what happened in Algeria wasn’t even called a “war” in France until 1999; for years, it was the “war without a name.” That amnesia ended in the early 2000s, largely thanks to a new wave of studies that put the most uncomfortable aspects of the conflict, particularly the use of torture by the French army, in the spotlight. The country started talking about the war like never before, and this time mainstream political figures were eager to join the debate. Then-President Jaques Chirac inaugurated a memorial for the fallen French troops and harkis, but he also spoke of a past “we cannot forget, nor deny” in a landmark visit to Algeria.

But if the issue was now less of a taboo, it had also become more liable to political manipulation, particularly from the right. To the extreme of the political spectrum, French Algeria nostalgia had long been nurtured by the National Front, the party that would later be rebranded as the National Rally. In the mid-2000s, the mainstream conservative Union for a Popular Movement party decided to go after the same votes by adopting the same narrative. 

Macron has sought to define what France is meant to be, even before becoming president, by seizing upon the Algerian War.The first clear sign of this tectonic political shift came in 2005, with the adoption of a law, pushed by the right-wing majority, requiring school curricula to give adequate space to “the positive role of the French presence overseas,” though the line was later removed. Two years later, presidential hopeful Nicolas Sarkozy successfully campaigned under the “no repentance” banner, insisting that France should not be ashamed of its colonial past and is morally indebted to the pieds-noirs for their suffering. 

“Behind this insistence on Algeria lies a debate on national identity, about what France is supposed to be,” said Paul Morin, a researcher at Sciences Po university. 

Macron has sought to define what France is meant to be, even before becoming president, by seizing upon the Algerian War. As a candidate in 2017, he described colonization as a “crime against humanity,” and a year later, as president, acknowledged widespread French torture and extrajudicial executions during the conflict. More broadly, Macron has sought to use the narrative around the Algerian War to shape the debate over immigration in France—a debate that has been boiling over since the unrest that erupted in the country’s immigrant-heavy urban slums, or banlieues, in 2005. 

But while the left has also used the themes of Algeria and colonization for its own agenda, for example to stress the ancient ties between France and its North African immigration, the public discussion that Macron stepped into remains largely framed by the right. Conservatives argued that touting the good that French colonization did would help integrate disenfranchised immigrant youths, even though they seldom brought up Algeria themselves. Today, “no repentance” remains a fundamental law of French politics: The Élysée was careful to reaffirm it even as it received the Stora report, showing how seriously it is taking the risk of alienating the right-wing electorate.

Macron is also keeping in line by overstressing the role Algerian traumas play in today’s France. In a speech on Islamist separatism and radicalization last October, he mentioned the Algerian War among the factors contributing, in his view, to a rejection of French values among some members of the immigrant community.

The timing of the Stora report and France’s latest effort to grapple with its colonial memory speak volumes. The report was commissioned amid widespread outrage and popular unrest, similar to what happened in the United States, over police abuses and racism. The events of 1954, or 1957, or 1962, were never a priority for the protesters. But for Macron, they were—underscoring the degree to which French politics, starting on the right but extending across the spectrum, is still in thrall to the ghosts of Algeria.

“Macron’s main political move following this mobilization wasn’t to reform the police, but to commission a report on the Algerian War,” said Morin of Sciences Po. Such a response may be easier than reforming the security forces. But it also shows an enduring conviction that the Algerian War “is still poisoning French society,” he said.

Michele Barbero is an Italian journalist based in Paris.

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