France haunted by colonial nightmare: Thirty years ago today Algerian independence was declared. Julian Nundy in Paris examines a traumatic anniversary that cannot be forgotten

Click to follow
The Independent Online
'I HAVE seen people throw their television sets from the second floor, or furniture into the middle of the road and soak it in petrol and burn it. Children are smashing their toys with hammers on the pavements.'

Guy Doly-Linaudiere, a young lieutenant in the French army in Algeria, wrote these lines in his diary as European settlers abandoned the city of Oran 30 years ago this week, determined to leave behind nothing of use. Many of Algeria's one million pieds noirs were leaving for a country that they did not know and with which many had no real connection.

Unlike most other uprooted colonialists, the pieds noirs were not all functionaries or rich farmers. They were often shopkeepers, nurses or manual workers. Many had come from Spain, Portugal or Italy in search of prosperity; along the way, they had acquired French nationality.

Other refugees from the revolution were Jewish Algerians. Some settled in France, others opted for Israel. All who were old enough had had the words 'native Jew' stamped on their identity documents by the Second World War Vichy administration.

A 1979 history of France's 130 years in Algeria has a section entitled 'From Vichy to Evian'. While it is a play of words on the names of mineral waters, the title also underscores the two great traumas of modern France.

The eight-year Algerian war, which ended with the Evian peace agreement, is a story of resentment, torture and betrayals. However, unlike the other trauma - Second World War collaboration - Algeria can still tangibly affect modern French life.

Even before the assassination this week of Mohamed Boudiaf, the Algerian leader, politicians were talking privately of 'boat people' arriving on French shores, escaping Islamic rule just across the Mediterranean. Some officials say middle-class Algerians, the professionals that developing countries need so badly, are already packing up to start new lives elsewhere.

The two national traumas even have a symbol, of sorts, in one man. Maurice Papon, who was Minister of the Budget from 1978 to 1981, was chief of police in Paris in October 1961, when more than 100 Algerians who had been taking part in a demonstration were killed. Many were found floating in the Seine. Mr Papon is facing charges of crimes against humanity, not for Algerian events, but for his alleged role in the deportation of Jews during the German occupation, when he was a government official in Bordeaux.

The 1961 killings were just one example of the violence that marked the Algerian war, in which Algerian liberation fighters would mutilate compatriots who refused to join them. Initially, it was a guerrilla war in the countryside. French targets would be hit at night. By day, life went on as normal. Then fighters of the National Liberation Front took the struggle to the towns. Random bombings and assassinations hit Europeans. In response, torture by the French army became virtually institutionalised, and French soldiers would carry out summary killings by the roadside.

In 1958 Charles de Gaulle, the only man thought strong enough to keep the colony French, was acclaimed by crowds in Algiers.

But This was to prove one of the most bitter betrayals: it was de Gaulle who eventually recognised that France could not keep the colony and ordered the army withdrawal. The OAS, the Secret Army Organisation, grouping settlers, army mutineers and sympathisers, was formed. It turned to bombing Arab targets and used explosives on the mainland to hit at the French administration. Some of its members were executed.

When the French army finally started to pull out 30 years ago, soldiers were told not to evacuate the Harkis, Algerians who had served the French. Many soldiers disobeyed and the Harkis were packed into troopships heading for France. Of those left behind, thousands - estimates vary between 30,000 and 100,000 - were killed, often after being tortured.

The survivors came to a France which immediately turned its back on them. The Harkis were often illiterate and had simply followed the lead of a village headman to collaborate with the French. Now, with their children, they are thought to number some 460,000 across France. They have stuck together, although they are now housed on municipal estates.

Occasionally, as happened last summer, the Harkis rebel, setting up roadblocks to draw attention to the high unemployment among them. Although the French government organised credits to enable refugees from Algeria to start a new life, the Harkis were often unaware of this, or unable to do the paperwork.

Three weeks ago, just outside Paris, a reunion was organised of pied noirs and Harkis to commemorate their past lives. Few Harkis attended, and the pieds noirs lamented events in Algeria since independence.

In some cases, their children, who had not known life there, had visited Algeria, but found little to justify their parents' enthusiasm. The beautiful white-painted Algiers their parents left had only 500,000 inhabitants. Now it has five times as many. Two-thirds of Algeria's present population had not even been born when the refugee ships left.

Six months ago, as the Algerian government clamped down on the Islamic fundamentalists who were leading in the country's first democratic elections, a French official said Algeria had two years to institute genuine reforms and head off a fundamentalist regime. With Boudiaf's death, that analysis is beginning to look optimstic. Whatever happens now, France must brace itself for a new chapter in the history of its ties to the former colony.

(Photograph omitted)