Mao’s deputy was asked if the French Revolution had been a success or not, “Too early to say” came his chilling reply
At the time of writing, France is in the middle of presidential elections. I’m predicting Macron again – but only just! As electoral systems go, I like the French way of electing their head of state:
A first-round free-for-all is followed by a head-to-head between the two front-runners. The first ballot is a vote from the heart, the second comes from the head – or let’s hope so.
Who will Macron face? If, by some miracle, it’s the socialist, Jean-Luc Melenchon, then the cork is maybe back in the bottle for a bit, but it’s probably going to be one of the candidates from the anti-immigration right, Marine Le Pen or Eric Zemmour. Together, according to the polls, they carry over 40% of the electorate. It’s going to be tight, but why?
As the voters of France go to the polls, they will have more on their minds than the war in Ukraine, covid and rocketing fuel prices. Immigration is up there but given an extra gravitas by the legacy of Algeria; its 8-year war for independence from France was more than half a century ago, yet still casts its long accusatory shadow over everything since. Not forgetting an estimated 10% of the French population are of Algerian heritage.
Algeria was never an official French colony, unlike neighbouring Morocco and Tunisia. It was occupied in 1830 and legally became an integral part of ‘Metropolitan France’ in 1881. Algiers, after the war felt and looked like any other French city. The French settlers (les pieds noirs), by now with deep roots in the country, comprised nearly 20% of Algeria’s population. The indigenous Arabs and Berbers were meanwhile corralled into ghettos, like the infamous Kasba in Algiers, or largely left to their own devices in the countryside. “La Mediterranée traverse la France comme la Seine traverse Paris.” For France in those times, the Mediterranean was no more of a political divide than the Irish sea is to an Ulster Unionist today.
France had a torrid time of it in the decades following the Second World War. Not only was she emerging from the humiliation of Nazi occupation and collaboration, she was also trying to claw her way back to the top table internationally, and this meant re-establishing her empire in Africa and Asia.
The first crisis came in French Indochina, today’s Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. Emerging as they were from Japanese occupation, the re-imposition of French rule was not their idea of ‘freedom’. For nearly a decade French soldiers slugged it out against Viet Minh nationalists who, ironically, had refined their Marxist liberation ideology in Paris before the war. In 1954 it came to a climax with the resounding Viet Minh victory over the French stronghold of Dien Bien Phu. French colonialism had met its match and their troops were on their way home.
But only five months later it all kicked off in Algeria, inside Metropolitan France! This new threat, the FLN (le Front de Libération Nationale), were not to be trifled with. Over the next three years they attacked French rule with every force at their disposal, including the infamous ice-cream parlour bomb in downtown Algiers in the summer of ‘56. Atrocities were becoming commonplace. Mainland France, as well as Algeria, was in turmoil.
Into all this came a young Mary Moriarty. (The famed landlady of the Port o’ Leith Bar and general champion, indeed icon, of all things Leith.) An excited Mary disembarked the boat from Marseille to take up the post of nanny to the children of the US consul in Algiers. She loved to walk the streets and enjoy the cafes. “It was like Paris by the sea, only much warmer”. She recalls their lovely house, the glorious beaches, the excitement of a British ship docking in Algiers port with all those fine sailors from back home. She remembers plumes of smoke from explosions in nearby streets, cinema doors being locked to prevent bombers coming in, and the feel of that wonderful dress she bought from the grand department store she can’t remember the name of…
In 1957, while Mary was still there, the Paratroopers were sent in to take over from local French police and restore order. A new Socialist government in Paris introduced notorious ‘Special Powers’ with backing from the powerful French Communist Party. The Paras’ use of curfews, stop-and-search, grotesque forms of water torture, shootings, and ultimately, the guillotine, did eventually restore a degree of calm. The FLN command structure had been systematically eliminated; the indigenous population temporarily suppressed into grudging acquiescence. (See the film: Battle of Algiers - free on Prime). Mary was back home by ‘58.
The following year yet another government in Paris collapsed and De Gaulle responded to the call to return and save France. He took until 1962 to recognise the FLN and negotiate peace and independence for Algeria. But not before the Settlers and their mainland allies had attempted a military coup and De Gaulle himself had survived three assassination attempts. (See another film: Day of the Jackal.)
Many likely to vote for Le Pen or Zemmour come from backgrounds that viewed De Gaulle as a traitor. They had seen their hero betray them; effectively surrendering and then closing the door on what was, for them, an integral part of their homeland. A million Algerian French settlers scrambled for the boats back in ‘62. Not all got out. Greeting them and their children in mainland France were mistrust and rumbling hostility.
But nothing compares to the misery faced by the Arabs and Berbers who had served alongside the French forces in Algeria, the harkis. Out of the 200,000 who fought for Algeria as part of France, only 42,000 were allowed to escape. On arriving they were sent to overcrowded internment camps in the foothills of the Pyrenees. Hundreds died. Those left behind in Algeria were massacred.
Both the left and right in French politics were as one on the question of Algeria until at least ‘68; a shame that is not forgotten by Algerian Moslem and Pied Noir descendants voting in France today. The policy since seems to have been one of erasing it from memory whilst defending the essence of what it means to be a citizen of France.
For many the answer is clear: ‘laïcité’, (pronounced: lah-ee-ceety), meaning roughly ‘secularism’. This is one of the founding stones of France since the revolution and they take it very seriously. At the heart of laïcité is the complete removal of religion from public life to create an unsegregated citizenry.
This includes banning any visible evidence in public of your religious beliefs: crucifixes, veils, hijabs, marriage, schooling, buildings of public worship, etc. As a principle it is uncompromising and claims to make no exceptions. Critics argue that laïcité is nothing more than a re-branding of Judeo-Christian culture, for non-believers. Nevertheless, laïcité is why no one knows how many Muslims, Jews, Catholics or Protestants there are, or ever have been, in France since the revolution. The census forbids asking any citizen their religion. The mayor of Bezier was even prosecuted recently for hazarding an educated guess at the Muslim percentage of his own town.
With Le Pen and Zemmour, the voters have two alternative candidates who encapsulate both the Algerian conflict in their own family histories and a defence of laïcité. Marine Le Pen’s father was a lieutenant in the French army during the battle of Algiers, probably guilty of torture. Eric Zemmour is himself Algerian, of Jewish-Berber heritage, and an ardent French patriot. These are not simply crude Trump/Farage imitations. They speak to those who who still feel the open wound of Algeria and harbour angst about what the rebound of Muslim immigration means for France’s secular future.
Whatever the result of this election, the spectre of Algeria and the challenges Muslim immigration present to France’s secular ‘credo’, are not going away anytime soon. No wonder Chou Enlai (Mao’s deputy), discussing with US Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger whether the French Revolution had been a success or not, gave an answer that hangs like a guillotine over France today, “Too early to say” was his chilling reply. ■
A bomb explodes from a café in Algiers in 1956, Mary Moriarty in Algiers, 1956