France Begins to Remember Algeria

November 10, 1991|By DIANA JEAN SCHEMO | DIANA JEAN SCHEMO,Diana Jean Schemo is The Sun's Paris correspondent.

PARIS — Paris. -- At the Neuilly Bridge, French policemen shot Muslims at point-blank range. At the Place de la Concorde subway, they lined up in double rows, alternately beating their sticks against .. the ground and against Muslims who walked between them. At the Canal St. Martin the next day, the bodies of Muslims drowned by police floated on the surface.

That was 30 years ago, when the battle pitting French against Algerian over the North African colony boiled over into the streets of Paris. Algerians turned out en masse to protest a nighttime curfew imposed on them in Paris and its suburbs 12 days earlier.

Although the official government count was two dead -- one of them French -- in the protest, historians estimate 200 people bearing dark skin or frizzy hair were executed by police who presumed they were Algerians.

But it is only now that French television has begun examining the massacre on Oct. 17, 1961 and what is commonly called "the dirty war" that led up to it: France's complicated, eight-year battle against Algerian independence.

French television recently broadcast what was billed as its first look at this country's colonial past, in a four-part documentary, "The Algerian Years."

Certainly, earlier years had seen other films on the Algeria war, but they were often produced in other countries and drew little interest in France. Or they were shown in movie houses, where few went to see them.

The landmark 1966 drama "The Battle of Algiers," which introduced a generation to the war's atrocities, was produced by an Italian rather than French director, Gillo Pontecorvo. In France, "The Battle of Algiers" was banned.

The television documentaries contrast dated grainy black-and-white newsreel propaganda -- staged battles; soldiers supplying food, schooling and medical care to Algerians -- along with color interviews of ordinary people caught up in the war: veterans, former colonists, draft dodgers, Algerian collaborators and independence fighters.

"It really seemed urgent to us to get things moving, because we [French] keep stumbling over the consequences of that war," said Philippe Alfonsi, whose Taxi Productions here made the film.

Mr. Alfonsi traces many of France's current problems -- resentment and rioting among the sons of Algerians who collaborated with the French, rise of the extreme-right wing National Front party of Jean-Marie Le Pen, to name just two -- back to the unsettled accounts of the Algerian War.

Mr. Le Pen is widely described here as a veteran of the French underground OAS, the anti-independence Organization de l'Armee Secrete, which committed terrorist acts in France and Algeria in the name of keeping Algeria French. His party now enjoys some 40 percent support among former French colonists of Algeria living in the south of France.

Not that it would have been a simple matter to confront the war's demons in the political climate of 1962. For France had uncontestedly won the war on the battlefield, but lost the support of a French public opinion.

Mostly, people were fed up with the undeclared war that seemed to drag on and on. The war had already brought down the Fourth Republic and opened the way for the Fifth Republic of Charles de Gaulle, granting him strong executive powers.

The Evian Accords that conceded Algerian independence, the French hoped, would close the chapter on this complicated war that turned Frenchmen and Algerians not only against each other, but against their own compatriots.

Finally, the French could get on with a more normal life, and enjoy the burgeoning consumer society of the 1960s.

And so the morally troubling questions raised by the war were shut away, much as they were after France's collaboration with Nazi Germany 17 years earlier.

The one million displaced European colonists, returning to a continent that had long since stopped being home, nurtured a bitterness of their betrayal against President de Gaulle, who they said "gave away" Algeria.

Algerian collaborators, who had banked on French promises that Algeria would remain "forever French," were left behind as prey for countrymen they had betrayed.

The country of "Liberty, Fraternity, and Equality" carried the political stain of having fought an unpopular colonial war in a world where the political tide ran in the opposite direction.

France carried, most of all, the burden of its own conscience: the repression, the habitual use of torture, and army-orchestrated reprisals against ordinary Algerians.

"I've always thought of the Algerian War as the putrid skeleton in the closet, and the heart of that corpse was the torture," said Alain de la Morandais, a Catholic priest who fought in the war.

Amid all the moral confusion and contradiction, the vying versions of truth carried by each section of society, the country could only avert its eyes.

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