Monday, November 16, 2015

It's about history and social problems - France's Algerian War

As Paris struggles with the atrocities of 13 November, as authorities investigate, as pundits punt, it appears everybody is focused on their narrative about Syria and ISIS.

The short term focus is understandable, but Islamist terrorism in France, including the French speaking southern part of Belgium owes much of its ferocity not to ISIS but to the Algerian War of Independence in the late 1950s and early 1960s. To get a better picture, we'd need to talk about Morocco and Tunisia, too, even Libya to some extent, but we leave it at Algeria because it was the biggest conflict, casting the longest shadow into 21st Century France.

After the January 2015 attack on satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, there were a couple of extended references to issues of North African history. In the aftermath of last Friday, pretty much all we get are nationalities or places of birth, maybe with an "of Moroccan descent" thrown in.

There is, however, one immediate sign of historical ignorance when we call the Friday events, as for instance in The Daily Beast, "the worst atrocity to befall France since World War II".

Worst terror attack, certainly, but not the worst atrocity.

For the record, that awful designation goes to the killing of over 200 Algerians by police in Paris on a single day in October 1961.

If you only have time for a single account of the Algerian War and its consequences, the article Fifty years after Algeria's independence, France is still in denial is a recommended read. It talks about the brutality of that war, the mass emigration to mainland France, the housing estates, the grandchildren, and the lack of honesty by the French state.

Those housing estates with a population of 99% black or North African descent make headlines every now and then, and the blogster does not know many white Europeans or Americans who would go there at night.

But, as the blogster found, they are actually safer than some neighborhoods in U.S. cities, if you are simply nice to the kids hanging out. We will never know whether the young white French woman who lived in one of the large estates south of the city made a difference to the life of a young Beur by treating him or her like an equal, but we do know that you can live there safely as a white person, walk your dog, and schlepp your groceries without harm.

Social problems don't go away by bombing, and individuals do make a difference.

As this brief anecdote from Paris a couple of years after the Algerian War of Independence shows. It is an anecdote that may otherwise be forgotten.

The occasion was a reception at the Algerian embassy in Paris, a black tie event as we would call it. Introductions were being made, Parisian officials mixing with Algerian officials, Bonsoir Monsieur, Bonsoir Monsieur. A French civil servant introduced himself to one of a series of Algerians, expecting a version of the small talk made several times that evening.

The Algerian diplomat introduced himself and added: I am very pleased to finally be able to talk to you. I had you in my rifle sights many times, but you were good to our people.

After the initial shock on the part of the French civil servant, the two had an enjoyable chat.

[Update] Fixed typos. Decided to give a couple more details. The French civil servant had held the rank of captain during the war, and his last name began with L.

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