Algiers, a city where France is the promised land – and still the enemy

Andrew Hussey believes the only way to makes sense of the problems Algeria faces today is to look back into its colonial history. He takes a journey through 21st-century Algiers … into a dark past – Published on The Guardian, by Andrew Hussey, The Observer, Jan 27, 2013.

… More recently, France was convulsed by a series of murders over nine days last March including three French soldiers of north African descent killed in two separate shootings, and a rabbi, his two young sons and a third child in an attack on a Jewish school in Toulouse. 

The rage only intensified when it became known that the killer was Mohamed Merah, a young French citizen of Algerian origin. Before Merah was shot dead in an armed police siege of the block of flats where he lived, he declared that he wanted to “bring France to its knees”.

Many ordinary Algerians wanted to pass the affair off as an internal French matter and did not want to be contaminated by association. There was much loud anger in the Algerian press about the way in which the murders were linked to Merah’s Algerian origins: this was pure racism for many. But none of this stopped Merah becoming a hero, praised as “lion”, in the radical mosques of Algiers. Fifty years on from their last real war, it seems that France and Algeria are still quite capable of tearing each other’s throats out.

I first saw for myself the rawness of these emotions when I went to study in France in 1982. I ended up living on the outskirts of Lyon, which is where the first so-called urban riots kicked off – the precursors of the riots of the 2000s. Throughout that summer – the “hot summer” – cars were regularly set alight by immigrant youths who called this kind of entertainment “rodeos” and who declared war on the police. The centre of the violence was the cité (housing estate) in Vénissieux called Les Minguettes.

At the time, I knew little about French colonial history and assumed that these were race riots not much different to those we had known in the UK in 1981. But I was aware that most of the kids who were fighting the police were of Algerian origin and that this must have some kind of significance.

Thirty years on, the unresolved business between France and Algeria has grown ever more complex. That is why last year I launched a Centre for the Study of France and North Africa (CSFNA) at the University of London Institute in Paris (ULIP) where I am dean. The overall aim of the centre is to function as a thinktank, bringing together not just academics but all those who have a stake in understanding the complexities of Franco-Algerian history; this necessarily involves journalists, lawyers and government as well as historians.

At the same time, I am writing a book called The French Intifada, which is a parallel attempt to make sense of French colonial history in north Africa. This book is a tour around some of the most important and dangerous frontlines of what many historians now call the fourth world war. This war is not a conflict between Islam and the west or the rich north and the globalised south, but a conflict between two very different experiences of the world – the colonisers and the colonised.

The French invaded Algeria in 1830. This was the first colonisation of an Arab country since the days of the Crusades and it came as a great shock to the Arab nation. This first battle for Algiers was a staged affair. Pleasure ships sailed from Marseille to watch the bombardment and the beach landings. The Arab corpses that lay strewn in the streets and along the coastline were no more than incidental colour to the Parisian spectator watching the slaughter through opera glasses from the deck of his cruise ship.

The trauma deepened as, within a few short decades, Algeria was not given the status of a colony but annexed into France. This meant that the country had no claim to any independent identity whatsoever, but was as subservient to Parisian government as Burgundy or Alsace-Lorraine. This had a deeply damaging effect on the Algerian psyche. The settlers who came to work in Algeria from the European mainland were known as pieds-noirs – black feet – because, unlike the Muslim population, they wore shoes. The pieds noirs cultivated a different identity from that of mainland Frenchmen.

Meanwhile, Muslim villages were destroyed and whole populations forced to move to accommodate European farms and industry. As the pieds-noirs grew in number and status, the native Algerians, who had no nationality under French law, did not officially exist. Albert Camus captures this non-identity beautifully in his great novel L’Etranger (The Outsider): when the hero Meursault shoots dead the anonymous Arab on an Algiers beach, we are only concerned with Meursault’s fate. The dead Arab lies literally outside history.

Like most Europeans or Americans of my generation, I had first come across Algiers and Algeria in Camus’s writings, not just in L’Etranger but also his memoirs and essays. And like most readers who approach Algeria through the prism of Camus, I was puzzled by this place, which, as he described it, was so French that it might have been in France but was also so foreign and out of reach … //

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