The Battle of Algiers, an award-winning film based on the true story of the struggle for Algerian independence. Saadi Yacef, who plays El-Hadi Jaffar, was an actual FLN guerrilla leader; the character Jaffar is basically himself a few years before the film was made. In part, the movie is his story, but in fact it’s the story of all Algeria at that tumultuous time, when the country was fighting to free itself from French colonial rule. At around the same time as the movie’s final scene plays out, this happened across the Mediterranean, in Paris:
Unarmed Algerian Muslims demonstrating in central Paris against a discriminatory curfew were beaten, shot, garotted and even drowned by police and special troops. Thousands were rounded up and taken to detention centers around the city and the prefecture of police, where there were more beatings and killings.
How many died? No one seems to know for sure, even now. Probably around 200.
It seems astonishing today, from this perspective, that such a thing could happen in the middle of a major Western capital closely covered by the international media. This was not Kabul, Beijing, Hebron or some Bosnian backwater, after all, but the City of Light – Paris.
But the Fifth Republic under President Charles de Gaulle was in trouble in October 1961. De Gaulle, who was primarily interested in establishing France’s pre-eminent position in Western Europe and the world, found himself presiding over domestic chaos. France was constantly disrupted by strikes and protests by farmers and workers, as well as by terrorism from opposing organizations: the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN), representing the Algerian nationalist independence movement, and the Organisation Armée Secrète (OAS), a group of disaffected soldiers, politicians and others committed to keeping Algeria French. The OAS rightly perceived that de Gaulle was bound to free France from the burden of its last major colonial holding, so he could get on with the business of making France the economic and political power of his lofty ambition.
Of course, Algeria didn’t stay French; in 1962, independence finally arrived to stay.
But in France, something else had stuck around, something unwelcome and unmentionable: fascism, supposedly overcome at the end of World War II, but in fact simmering in the background not only in Algeria, but all over French Colonial Africa. And in 1961, it burst to the fore on French soil with the kind of violence that would a few years later characterize Pinochet’s Chile, or Argentina under the fascist military junta:
But the vicious war in Algeria, marked by bloody atrocities committed on all sides, had been grinding on for nearly seven years. Terrorist attacks in Paris and other French cities had claimed dozens of lives of police, provoking what Interior Minister Roger Frey called la juste colère – the just anger – of the police. They vented that anger on the evening of Oct. 17. About 30,000 Muslims – from among some 200,000 Algerians, ostensibly French citizens, living in and around Paris – descended upon the boulevards of central Paris from three different directions. The demonstration of men, women and children was called by the FLN to protest an 8:30 p.m. curfew imposed only on Muslims.
The demonstrators were met by about 7,000 police and members of special Republican Security companies, armed with heavy truncheons or guns. They let loose on the demonstrators in, among other places, Saint Germain-des-Prés, the Opéra, the Place de la Concorde, the Champs Elysée, around the Place de l’Étoile and, on the edges of the city, at the Rond Point de la Defense beyond Neuilly.
My news agency friend counted at least 30 corpses of demonstrators in several piles outside his office near the city center, into which he had pulled some Algerians to get them away from rampaging police. Another correspondent reported seeing police backing unarmed Algerians into corners on sidestreets and clubbing them at will. Later eyewitness reports recounted stranglings by police and the drowning of Algerians in the Seine, from which bodies would be recovered downstream for weeks to come.
Shades of the Argentine Junta, who were known for “disappearing” their victims, and who drowned the Río de la Plata with victims thrown drugged and still living from airplanes.
Just ten years ago, the world was shocked to hear that a pair of North African Muslim teenagers were electrocuted to death in a power substation to the north of Paris, in one of the infamous banlieues — essentially, Afro-Francophone ghettoes. They had been chased to their death by the police. A third boy escaped alive, but badly burned. The incident sparked riots that went on for two weeks.
Just the unruliness of the non-white colonials, revealing their good-for-nothing baser nature, in dire need of the French to secularize and civilize them? Hardly. Maurice Papon was then still alive, and so was the legacy of his particularly Nazified style of policing, which outlived him at his death two years later.
Those police tactics in the movie are well worth watching, too, since Paponism is embodied by the police inspector who sets a terrorist bomb in the Casbah of Algiers after curfew, killing the family of an innocent laborer scapegoated at random by the colonials. Torture figures highly as a means of getting Algerian guerrillas to talk and reveal the identities and whereabouts of their confederates to the paratroopers under command of Colonel Mathieu. The guillotine, long out of fashion in France, is still very much in use in its colonies; Ali La Pointe, the illiterate young man who becomes a key FLN figure, is radicalized in prison, upon witnessing the beheading of an Algerian nationalist being hauled to his death crying “Long Live Algeria” in Arabic.
The irony of Mathieu’s past as a Resistance hero, called upon to defend an indefensible colonialism that reeks of the Vichy era of Nazi occupation, should not be lost on anyone. His “scrupulous” integrity is much compromised, too, by his willingness to employ torture as an interrogation tactic. Yet he gives his word, when urging FLN leaders Murad and Ramel to give themselves up, that as prisoners they will not be harmed. He is that most French of contradictions: a man of honor, scrupulously following orders to do the most dishonorable things, much like Inspector Javert from Les Misérables. Strangest of all is the scene where he converses with the captured Jaffar on the way to headquarters, remarking that he feels a kind of kinship with the FLN leader, whose photograph he has studied for months, and that he is glad that Jaffar is alive and unhurt. One gets the impression that if it were not for their being on opposite sides of a struggle, the two would have been great friends. Mathieu is the embodiment of all of France’s own internal contradictions, as well as of blind loyalty to ideas he, like his homeland, does not enact at all well when it comes down to the crunch.
Jaffar is captured; Murad and Ramel blow themselves up (along with several paratroopers) rather than surrender; Ali La Pointe, Hassiba, Mahmud and Little Omar are killed by a bomb set by Mathieu’s own paratroops. It would appear that Mathiew’s offensive has paid off, and the French have won. But one battle, as Larbi Ben M’Hidi might have pointed out earlier on, is not the whole of the war. In the end it is not the blinkered faux-idealism of Mathieu that wins out; it is the impulse toward independence, however incoherent, on the part of all Algeria.
What began as a seemingly doomed guerrilla war became, over a period of years, a full popular uprising. And it was late in the game that Maurice Papon, back home in Paris, employed the dirty tricks he’d learned as a Vichy collaborator, and turned them on Algerian protesters there. And this is the final irony of the Battle of Algiers: right in the heart of France, it became all too evident why the Algerians wanted out of the empire. Little wonder, than, that the news of that massacre was heavily suppressed!
That lesson should not be lost on anyone today, especially in asking why so-called Islamists are rising up. Colonialism is far from dead in Africa today, and there are still over a dozen countries there paying colonial taxes to France…and chafing under that yoke. And there are plenty of refugees from those unstable, conflict-riven countries, too, being denied opportunities in a land that was presented to them as a benevolent overlord. One of the recent Paris attackers, for instance, was Algerian. Under those circumstances, uprisings are not just understandable, but well-nigh inevitable.
And it was only a matter of time before all those chickens came home to roost.