France remembers the Algerian War, 50 years on

Half a century ago, representatives of the French government and the main Algerian nationalist party signed the Evian Accords ending the Algerian War. But it also unleashed a series of traumatic events that France is not keen to revisit.


Fifty years ago, a series of peace accords were signed in the French spa town of Evian, which brought an end to the brutal eight-year Algerian War. The signing triggered the largest human migration in post-war Europe, led to the massacre of thousands of Algerians who served in the French security forces, and finally paved the way for Algeria’s independence.

In terms of the sheer enormity of the historical forces it unleashed, the 1962 Evian Accords are a milestone in modern French history.

March 19 marks the 50th anniversary of the signing of the accords. But don’t expect any major national commemoration ceremonies in France. A number of veteran groups and municipal offices across the country will host wreath-laying ceremonies, but the commemorations are set to be low-key.

The brutal 1954-1962 Algerian War of Independence saw atrocities committed on both sides with Algerian historians putting the death toll at 1.5 million Algerian victims while French historians say around 400,000 people from both sides were killed.

Today, it remains a murky chapter of French history with many French people divided on how to mark a war that threatened to tear its society apart.

Half-a-century later, with the 2012 French presidential election looming, politicians have little enthusiasm for revisiting a painful past.

The signing of the Evian Accords is not an occasion for celebration in France, it’s a moment for remembrance and commemoration – and even that is being done without much enthusiasm.

The trauma of a generation

The official site of the Archives of France features a surprisingly brief four paragraphs on “the end of the Algerian War”. Concluding with the July 3, 1962 Algerian Independence Day the website explanation in French ends with an abrupt, “During this period, the bloodshed continued and affected all communities: Europeans and Muslims, civilians and military.”

In one concise line, the trauma of a generation and the birth pains of a new nation have been summarised.

Absent is any mention of the harkis, the Algerians who served in the French security forces, thousands of whom were massacred when French forces withdrew from Algeria.

There’s no specific reference to the pieds-noirs – the European immigrants in Algeria who fled the North African colony en masse to return to a mother country they never really knew and where they weren’t really welcome.

And there’s not a single mention of the OAS (Organisation Armée Secrete) - a terrorist group formed by French Army members who refused to accept an independent Algeria and unleashed a bloodbath of terror attacks, including several attempts to assassinate then President Charles de Gaulle.

"The National Archives management has decided that right now, it’s still a sensitive subject and to go into details would risk sparking protests," Philippe Richard George, a National Archives official, told AFP.

An anniversary in a presidential year

The 50th anniversary of the Evian Accords also falls just weeks before the first round of the French presidential election and French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who has been struggling to ovetake Socialist front-runner François Hollande in the polls, has not been eager to dwell on a sensitive subject.

French voters head to the polls on April 22 for the first round of the presidential election. The second round is set for May 6.

During a visit to Algeria in December, 2011, French Interior Minister Claude Gueant echoed his Algerian counterpart in calling for moderation during this period of commemoration to avoid reigniting tensions.

But during a campaign stop in the southern French city of Nice on March 9, Sarkozy reopened old wounds between France and its former North African colony when he insisted that France will not "repent" for the Algerian war.

"There were abuses," during the war of 1954 to 1962, said Sarkozy. "Atrocities were committed by both sides. These abuses, these atrocities have been and must be condemned, but France cannot repent for having conducted this war," he added.

Algeria has long demanded an official apology from France over the Algerian War. Responding to Sarkozy's statement, Algeria's Minister of State Abdelaziz Belkhadem said France will ultimately have no choice but to apologise.

Sarkozy also mentioned the "nightmare" of a million panicked pieds-noirs in Algeria who had to choose “the suitcase or the coffin”- forcing them to pack their belongings in two suitcases, abandon their properties and join the panicked flood of humanity at ports and airports fleeing to France.

During the 2007 presidential campaign, Sarkozy promised that, once in power, he would officially recognise France’s “responsibility in the abandonment and killing of harkis and thousands of others French Muslims who trusted France, so that the forgotten will not be killed again”.

Five years later, members of various pied-noir and harkis associations are all still waiting for that recognition. "Nicolas Sarkozy has two months to keep his promises,” fumed Gabriel Mène, head of USDIFRA, an association of French returnees from Algeria.

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