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International Affairs Editor

Algeria war, 50 years on: No commemoration here

Le 19-03-2012

If a ceasefire ending a bloody conflict is signed, but neither of the once-warring parties formally commemorates the event 50 years later, did the history actually happen?

The Algerian War is one of those historical episodes that everyone seems to talk about in France – but only in a way that skims the historical surface.

Schoolroom platitudes about a painful conflict are drummed into every French student.

But the conflict is rarely explained in a getting-to-the-bottom-of-things way.

The French media has done a valiant effort trying to fill in some blanks this week.

A stream of documentaries has accompanied the half-century anniversary since the signing in 1962 of the so-called Evian Accords between France, and Algeria’s triumphant independence fighters, grouped under the banner of the National Liberation Front (FLN).

The pact ended nearly eight years of war in which French historians state that at least 400,000 people were killed (however Algerian historians put that figure at 1.5 million), on both sides.

More broadly, it capped 132 years of French colonial rule in Algeria dating back to 1830.

But for all the fanfare, neither France nor Algeria has chosen to mark the anniversary with a nationwide commemoration.

A humiliating French defeat

In France, the official reason offered for the absence of a national observance is to avoid “fanning the flames” of a bitterly disputed historical episode.

In Algeria, meanwhile, President Abdelaziz Bouteflika apparently wants to avoid exploiting the anniversary in a way that might antagonise a French partner that accounts for one-fifth of Algeria’s external trade (double the business Algeria does with China).

Unofficially, the Algerian War is fraught with humiliation - and shame - for the French.

The ceasefire may have ended the fighting, but it did not halt the atrocities perpetrated by the French or their minions.

Within days of the Evian Accords, a shadowy group of French fighters known as the Organisation of the Secret Army (OAS), fiercely opposed to Algerian independence, turned its wrath against fighters and ordinary citizens.

The OAS has been blamed for acts of armed insurrection, collective massacres and targeted assassinations. (Jean-Paul Sartre was said to have narrowly escaped an attempt on his life). There have been questions as to whether candidate Sarkozy would decide to honour veterans of the group, which is regarded as a patriotic front by many French.

The continuing fallout of the Algerian war has insinuated itself into France’s bitter election battle in other ways as well.

It has galvanised forces on the right - and Far Right - of the political spectrum that Nicolas Sarkozy is mindful of alienating at a critical political moment.

From one calamity to another

While the 1962 ceasefire was a coda to conflict, one which brought French troops home, it was also a curtain-raiser to further suffering and upheaval for hundreds of thousands of European-descended Algerians, known as “pieds noirs”.

For these people, the end of one calamity, in many cases, signalled the beginning of a new one: repatriation, loss and a new life in an unfamiliar “homeland” whose citizens had little understanding, or empathy, for their plight.

Then there were the so-called Harkis, as many as 200,000 Algerians and other Muslims from across North Africa, who fought with French troops during the war.

They often faced brutal reprisals after the war, coupled with a cold shoulder (or worse) from the French “compatriots” with whom they went to battle.

Sarkozy recently spoke of their “abandonment” and suffering – saying they were forced to choose between “the suitcase and the coffin”.

An independence fight usurped

The war remains an open sore in Algerian society as well.

Many Algerians feel that the independence struggle was usurped by military officials interested only in shoring up their own power at the expense of revolutionary ideals.

As French Weekly Courrier International put it, in a special issue on the Algerian War anniversary, revolution gave way to dictatorship as presidents were installed in power merely as a way of lending a veneer of democratic legitimacy to the new regime.

Algerians prefer to celebrate July 5th – the date of their proclamation of independence – rather than March 19, when the ceasefire went into effect.

For young Algerians, meanwhile, the war and its martyrs is a fast-receding historical marker.

The decrepit state of the economy, the lack of job opportunities, and a brake on social mobility are far more pressing concerns for the new generation.

They perceive their leaders as corrupt usurpers of the ideals bequeathed by the independence struggle.

As for Algeria’s independence fighters, they are emblems of a courageous, bygone era.

As an article appearing today in El Watan points out, many young people in Algeria draw a blank at the mention of March 19, 1962.

They are at pains to name a single negotiator at the Evian Accords.

“I feel respect for these men,” one young person told the newspaper. “I am ashamed to say it, but all this history doesn’t interest me. I recognise that they did remarkable things, but none of this should be exploited in the name of goodwill.”