John Lichfield: Our Man In Normandy

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In France, the past is rarely another country. History is buried in shallow graves. In rural France, for instance, you often find that local clans divide according to family allegiances of 1940-44: pro-Vichy or anti-Vichy; pro-Resistance or anti-Resistance.

This is a different, more solitary story, the story of Monsieur P, my 70-year-old neighbour in Normandy.

He loves animals and lives the year round in a rented, battered caravan. He is a retired postman, a gentle, timid man. He came into my garden the other day, wanting company and a chat. We sat down and had a beer.

After a few minutes of conversation, about vegetables and flowers and rain, Monsieur P, told me he was an ex-terrorist. In the early 1960s, he had been an active member of the Organisation Armeé Secrète (OAS), the movement against Algerian independence which killed 2,700 people - including 2,400 Algerians - between May 1961 and September 1962.

The OAS specialised in random, drive-by mass shootings of Arabs in Algeria and the bombing of pro-independence French politicians and Algerian activists in France. They made two, unsuccessful attempts to assassinate President Charles de Gaulle, events loosely described in the novel and film The Day of the Jackal.

Monsieur P said that he was not ashamed of what he had done. All the same, I had the impression that he was deeply ashamed of many of the things the OAS had done. He said this was the first time he had had talked about his terrorist career for many years.

Monsieur P looks younger than his age. He has a flat in town but prefers to live in the caravan, with his two dogs. He told me that he was a "foot-soldier" in the OAS while working as a junior official in La Poste in Paris in 1961-62.

"Within France, we tried to avoid killing innocent people," he told me. "In fact, we tried to avoid killing as much as possible. In Algeria, I know that things were different."

He declined to go further into details but said that, as a "post-office man", he had been "well-placed" to help the OAS plastiquer (detonate with plastic explosives) their targets in France. "People don't understand," he said. "People today don't understand. For me, it was a question of honour. In June 1944, I saw de Gaulle come ashore at Courseulles [a small port and seaside town on one of the Normandy landing beaches]. I was eight years old. I was as close to him as you are to me now. I revered the de Gaulle of 1944, of Free France, but I had nothing but hatred for the other de Gaulle, the de Gaulle, who betrayed us after 1958. Until 1961, I was a professional soldier, a sergeant, fighting with the French army in Algeria. I knew that Algérie Française was doomed. The idea that Algeria was just another part of France was crazy. The Arabs were not stupid.

"But De Gaulle double-crossed us and negotiated, not with the moderate Arabs but with the extremists. He left the Algerians who fought on our side, the harkis, to be murdered [Historians estimate between 50,000 and 150,000 were killed with extreme savagery].

"To me that was a betrayal of French honour, a betrayal of the French army. I joined the OAS, not to preserve French Algeria, but to fight de Gaulle, the man I had revered when I was eight."

France's failure to heal the scars of history can be explained in many ways but it is often linked to the patrician, top-down nature of French politics. There is a national obsession with betrayal-from-the-top, which is sometimes justified, sometimes not. In 1968, President de Gaulle gave an amnesty to those who had worked for the OAS, except for one or two senior members involved in the assassination plots against him.

Monsieur P has nothing to fear from his past. All the same, he keeps the past mostly secret, festering, unresolved.

Most of those nostalgic for French Algeria and the OAS - and there are many - are supporters of the far-right, National Front. Not Monsieur P. He says that, since the early 1960s, he has despaired of all French politics. "Nothing that I have seen since then, Mitterrand, Chirac, this Clearstream [smear] scandal, which no one can understand, has made me think any differently." He made as if to spit on my lawn. "All our politicians are the same," he said. "Treacherous, selfish, mendacious..." And he went back to his dogs and his caravan.