Colonial wounds that never healed

Europe could yet feel the force of the Algerian Islamists' struggle aga inst France, writes Michael Sheridan
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The Independent Online
T he Algerian conflict is seeping inexorably back into France for the first time since 1962, when a bitterly divisive peace put an end to the long colonial war. "The conquest and 100 years of French administration slipped over the immensity of Alg eria like water on granite," wrote a noted French liberal, Germaine Tillion, a generation ago. "But here in France, for the first time, the stone crumbles and the water penetrates."

It is happening again. The hijacking of the Air France airliner at Christmas, the murders yesterday of three French missionary fathers and a Belgian priest, the cultural war declared by Islamists upon symbols of Francophone civilisation: these events have brought to prominence a smouldering conflict which most of Europe has so far sought to ignore.

For many French people, the spectacle of commandos storming the plane at Marseilles airport revived recent memories of the Islamic extremist bombing campaign in Paris in the Eighties. To an older generation, though, it touched nerve-endings never healed.In France, as in Algeria, the reciprocal hurt of colonial rule and insurrection left profound psychological effects. And in the declarations of the Interior Minister, Charles Pasqua, who is no liberal, even French leftists will find a certain truth.

The "war against terrorism" of which he speaks is in many ways a continuation of the war that began with the massacre of Muslims by gendarmes at Setif in 1945 and ended, for France, with her settlers, the so-called pieds noirs, making the famous final choice "between the suitcase and the coffin". With that abdication, in the words of General de Gaulle, France believed that she was "free to marry her time".

But in the eyes of the Islamic underground now fighting to destroy the government in Algiers, the struggle for religious and cultural emancipation has never been concluded. With the departure of French soldiers, Algeria found independence of a radical Third World stamp. Yet the vestiges of French identity lingered - in language, literature, newspapers, consumer products, the way the government worked and the way intellectuals reasoned. To Islamists, these represented proof that the original liberation struggle was incomplete. A pamphlet from one of the multiplicity of Islamic underground groups this year described the Algiers French press - not the dailies from Paris, let it be noted, but newspapers written and edited in French by Algerians for Algerians - as "abominations before the eyes of God".

The extreme Islamist programme aims at nothing less than the extirpation of all manifestations of Western intrusion. Hence the campaign to kill writers, the murder of unveiled women, the terrorising of civil servants and, of course, the targeting of foreigners.

The Air France hijacking was assumed by French officials to be the work of the most intransigent elements, the Armed Islamic Group (GIA). The group originally received assistance from Iran but this is thought to have ceased. The notion of international

Islamic links to the Algerian underground appears to be overstated. It collides, in any case, with two Algerian characteristics common to the post-war liberation movement and to the new Islamists: their fierce independence from external political pressure and a refusal to deviate from maximum demands.

That second characteristic, ingrained in French memories, is one reason why Mr Pasqua decided that negotiation beyond a certain point was fruitless and ordered the police to storm the plane. The GIA is not in the business of compromise. On this occasion the French were successful. But a conflict with such deep and entangled roots is not over with one anti-terrorist operation.

Until now, Europe has been content to let the French shoulder their historical burden in Algeria. When the Algerian regime cancelled elections and drove the fundamentalists underground, the French foreign minister - Roland Dumas at the time - hastened almost indecently to Algiers to offer reassurance. France, correctly, believed economic misery to be a cause of much agitation and her diplomats and officials lobbied in international bodies for relief of Algerian debt and new foreign investment. It was hoped that a combination of judicious concession and improved economics might smooth a path towards compromise.

France reckoned without the old second characteristic. Neither the government nor the opposition saw any reason to compromise. A Western official who has had unique access to the higher echelons of the Algerian state security apparatus describes a feeling of violent despair gripping the government. With their only choice to fight on, losing the battle of the night and the countryside as did the French before them, these Algerians find themselves in a ghastly paradox. They face the prospect of the coffinwithout the hope of the suitcase. Part of Mr Pasqua's worry is that collapse in Algeria will see the onslaught on southern Europe's shores of a new generation of boat people, fleeing a vengeful fundamentalist regime. Anyone who believes in a peaceful transition for Algeria should recall the fate of between 30,000 and 150,000 local troops abandoned by the French to the FLN in 1962, or the contemporary verdict of a left-leaning French journalist, Jean Daniel, who found "mutual recrimination among Muslim leaders much worse than it had been between the rebels and the French". And the view in Paris, Madrid and Rome is that the implications for regional security are more alarming than any in Bosnia.

Algeria is therefore a problem for Europe as much as for France. The present French foreign minister, Alain Juppe, was in London just before Christmas to urge the necessity of economic aid and political commitment to the Maghreb Arab states of North Africa. And the "Mediterranean" pillar of policy is a key item on the agenda for the French EU presidency, which begins in January. Britain has so far been cautious about any proposals to pour money southwards and there is a feeling in Whitehall that Algeriais not a principal focus of British concern. Mr Juppe puts an eloquent case to the contrary.

After the last exodus, Le Monde wrote poetically of the pieds noirs, dispossessed in Alicante, who when they strolled on the seashore invariably cast their eyes to the other side of the Mediterranean. Their hate-filled leave-taking mellowed to yearning. But theirs was a war of transition. Algeria is now facing the final battle for its identity, and Europe could yet shudder at the outcome.