Riot police were mobilised Friday to the glitzy Cannes waterfront after a film dealing with France’s war in Algeria drew crowds of angry demonstrators.
“Outside of the Law”, which explores this painful chapter of France’s post-war history, has led to claims by some French groups that director Rachid Bouchareb “falsified history”.
Bouchareb also directed the 2006 film “Days of Glory” (Indigènes), which deals with the (often shameful) treatment of Algerian soldiers fighting for France during the Second World War. The film prompted then-president Jacques Chirac to order that such soldiers get the same pensions as French ones.
“Outside of the Law”, part-financed by France, tells the story of Algerian brothers who are driven from their home as children by colonialists and grow up to fight in mainland France for the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN).
The film has provoked huge controversy particularly because of its opening scene, which depicts a massacre in the town of Setif in 1945.
French historians estimate that some 15,000 Algerians were killed in Setif when French troops opened fire on a pro-independence rally. Their Algerian counterparts put the figure as high as 45,000. More than 100 Europeans also died.
‘Compared the French to the Nazis’
Ahead of the festival, right-wing politicians criticised the film's treatment of France's role in Algeria during the colonial period and the war that led to independence in 1962.
Lawmaker Lionel Luca, of the ruling UMP party, said after watching the film on Friday that it was "a partisan, militant, pro-FLN film" which "compared the French to the (Nazi) SS and the French police to the Gestapo."
Police said 1,200 people joined the Cannes protest which involved the far-right National Front party, but no incidents were reported.
Army veterans and groups representing former colonists and "harkis" (Algerians who fought for France) joined the protest, with demonstrators waving French flags and singing the French national anthem.
"It is a falsification of history," said Frederic Bruno, a 62-year-old pensioner who travelled from Nice to join the rally. In Setif, "the army kept order" after Algerians killed French people, he said.
Hitting a raw nerve
Compared with the Second World War and France’s colonial wars in Indo China, very few films have been made about the Algerian independence struggle and “Outside of the Law” is one of the very few cinematic treatments of the conflict. Stories about independence fighters in mainland France are especially rare.
Bouchareb insisted after the screening that the controversy was not so much in his handling of history - but more in the deep-rooted French reluctance to deal with the Algerian issue objectively.
"The film isn't a battlefield,” he said. “The film is not there to provoke confrontation. It is there to launch a calm debate."
He added: "It is for sociologists or other experts to say why in France people find it difficult to journey into the past."