Independent Algeria 60 Years Later: The Untold Story

25 July, 2022
Hal­i­da Boughri­et, “La bibliothèque,” Algiers, col­or pho­tog­ra­phy 120x80cm, 2011 (cour­tesy Hal­i­da Boughri­et).

 

On the 60th anniver­sary of Algeria’s inde­pen­dence, this essay seeks to answer why Alger­ian-Fran­co rela­tions have always been strained, and why they are like­ly to remain so.

 

Fouad Mami

 

Rela­tions between Algiers and Paris remain tense despite six decades of diplo­ma­cy. Three inter­re­lat­ed rea­sons include the fact that the Euro­pean colonists, after liv­ing in Alge­ria for four gen­er­a­tions, lost every­thing with the country’s attain­ment of inde­pen­dence in 1962, an event that marked the col­lapse of their project of l’Algérie française. Not only did they lose every­thing, but they moved, en masse, to France and became an addi­tion­al bur­den to a coun­try still recon­struct­ing after WWII. Sec­ond, due to the cir­cum­stances of Algeria’s decol­o­niza­tion, the French estab­lish­ment, in which the media is a key play­er, remains excep­tion­al­ly sen­si­tive when oth­er coun­tries’ com­pa­nies, such as those of the US and Chi­na, gain impor­tant shares in the lucra­tive Alger­ian mar­ket. And third, fol­low­ing its vic­to­ry in WWII, not a sin­gle pow­er on earth dared to say no to the US, which was push­ing for decol­o­niza­tion. US pol­i­cy­mak­ers want­ed decol­o­niza­tion not because they loved Indi­ans, Alge­ri­ans, or Kenyans, but because only decol­o­niza­tion guar­an­teed US com­pa­nies an advan­tage over French, British, or Dutch companies. 

 


 

Albert Camus (1913–1960), a Nobel Lau­re­ate for lit­er­a­ture, was born and raised in colo­nial Alge­ria. He is large­ly con­sid­ered in inde­pen­dent Alge­ria as the spokesper­son of white set­tlers, per­haps even the pride of a social class bet­ter known as les pieds noirs, descen­dants of white set­tlers or colonists (French but also oth­er Euro­peans) who set­tled after the con­quest of Alge­ria in 1830. They acquired fer­tile land at a frac­tion of the cost fol­low­ing the dec­i­ma­tion of native tribes and the ruinous poli­cies that led to the dis­pos­ses­sion of the remain­ing inhab­i­tants from their com­mu­nal lands. The ear­ly colonists are brand­ed as pio­neers. They worked the land and ren­dered it extreme­ly productive.

Dur­ing the 1930s, the colonists enter­tained that if Amer­i­ca is proud of Cal­i­for­nia, then France is proud of Orléans­ville, today’s the gov­er­norate of Chelf and the sur­round­ing region. True, these colonists were indus­tri­ous but they were noto­ri­ous­ly known for exploit­ing dis­pos­sessed Alge­ri­ans. Russ­ian con­victs, who lived through the reign of the last Tsar and were serv­ing prison terms around the 1910s in Bône, were shocked to find that the colonists treat­ed Alge­ri­ans worse than sheep.[1] With the end of mil­i­tary rule in the 1880s, colonists (not Met­ro­pol­i­tan France) were respon­si­ble — through exclu­sion­ary prac­tices — for lit­er­al­ly send­ing Alge­ri­ans behind the sun. Under­stand­ably, by the time the Alger­ian rev­o­lu­tion broke out in Novem­ber 1954, every­thing the colonists fought and stood for was at stake, as most of them at that point had been four gen­er­a­tions in the colony.

To give non-Alger­ian and non-French read­ers a taste of la déchirure, or the dis­heart­en­ing mis­for­tune of these colonists brought about by Algeria’s inde­pen­dence in 1962, con­sid­er this anal­o­gy. In South Africa, Nel­son Man­dela was award­ed the Nobel Prize for Peace sim­ply because he did not repeat the Alger­ian tragedy. Man­dela kept intact the eco­nom­ic priv­i­leges white colonists had enjoyed dur­ing apartheid. He did not start a pol­i­cy or prop­a­gate a process lead­ing to their even­tu­al evic­tion or dis­pos­ses­sion. White lib­er­als and their media adore Man­dela for not doing what the FLN is thought to have done with white colonists a mere three decades earlier. 

Here is where Camus’s con­cil­ia­to­ry dis­course dur­ing Algeria’s war of inde­pen­dence becomes rel­e­vant. He is famous/infamous for adopt­ing his mother’s point of view at the expense of jus­tice.[2] Because I hail from the very peo­ple sent behind the sun by Camus’ ances­tors, I find any engage­ment with that “jus­tice-ver­sus-moth­er” dis­cus­sion a dead horse. How so?  The ter­ror­ism Camus refers to in the quote was not ter­ror­ism; these were some people’s delib­er­ate actions of eman­ci­pa­tion, so that they might re-enter his­to­ry after more than a cen­tu­ry of denial. Hence the euphor­ic reac­tions cap­tured through Alger­ian songs and oth­er cul­tur­al arti­facts, such as: “يا محمدمبروك عليك الجزائر رجعت ليك”. [3]          

While a stu­dent at Algiers Uni­ver­si­ty dur­ing the 1990s, I took part in sev­er­al dis­cus­sions regard­ing whether or not Camus was a mis­un­der­stood uni­ver­sal­ist or a bloody racist. I can say now that lyri­cism, of the sort he and oth­ers employ, does not even begin to resolve his­tor­i­cal con­flicts. Read­ing Camus may make one more sen­si­ble, and more sen­si­tive to cer­tain com­plex­i­ties, but at the end of the day poet­ic for­mu­la­tions of his and his ilk (Mouloud Feraoun, for one) do not advance the cause of eman­ci­pa­tion one jot. Lyrics and poet­i­cism are what the French bril­liant­ly cap­ture through the expres­sion des mas­tur­ba­tions a l’infini.

Advanc­ing this posi­tion, I am aware, comes at the risk of effect­ing a major offense to lib­er­al sen­si­bil­i­ties since Camus has been the dar­ling of liberals. 

Sim­i­lar­ly, it is worth recall­ing that with the con­clu­sion of the Evian Agree­ments, colonists became per­sonas non gra­ta, unde­sired in a coun­try they called theirs. A large num­ber of them knew no oth­er coun­try to call theirs but Alge­ria. Today Alge­ri­ans per­fect­ly under­stand and even sym­pa­thize with their mis­for­tune. Strange­ly, the Evian Agree­ments guar­an­teed the colonists’ right to stay. But it is they who sealed their fate in call­ing for and act­ing to keep Alge­ria French. Had they stayed, I and my kind (prac­ti­cal­ly sons of impov­er­ished peas­ants) would nev­er have had the chance to make it beyond pri­ma­ry school. We would have been con­demned, like our fore­fa­thers, to sub­servient posi­tions. It is no exag­ger­a­tion that by lit­er­al­ly enslav­ing Alge­ri­ans, not a small num­ber of colonists lived like roy­al­ty. Hence the con­text for nos­tal­gia and the rumi­na­tion over a French Alge­ria in con­tem­po­rary France. Know­ing that orig­i­nal­ly these colonists hailed from peas­ant and work­ing-class back­grounds, it is under­stand­able that they bemoan what they lost. And Camus is an icon for every­thing they aspire to, the entre­pre­neur­ial self-made model. 
 

Ray­mond Depar­don, French troops in Algiers 1961, from the exhi­bi­tion “Ray­mond Depardon/Kamel Daoud. Son œil dans ma main. Algérie 1961–2019” (cour­tesy Insti­tut du Monde Arabe).

 

Now, con­cern­ing how inde­pen­dent Alge­ria has fared, vol­umes can be writ­ten about polit­i­cal dys­func­tion and cor­rup­tion. But for the sake of fair­ness, we must admit that today every Alger­ian is enti­tled to free edu­ca­tion, health insur­ance, dig­ni­fied lodg­ings, etc. Only those blind­ed by hatred of Alge­ria can deny these mate­r­i­al gains.

Once inde­pen­dence was secured, the strug­gle shift­ed and became, first and fore­most, one of class. Yet the pre­dom­i­nant nation­al­ist dis­course pre­vail­ing after inde­pen­dence only seeks to asphyx­i­ate the class war. Through sev­er­al slo­gans, Le hirak (peace­ful upris­ing) of Feb­ru­ary 2019 artic­u­lat­ed that class dimen­sion. Still, the tri­umphant nar­ra­tive tried and suc­ceed­ed in por­tray­ing it as no more than exas­per­a­tion with Boute­fli­ka and his cronies. Yet le hirak is much more than that. It is an incen­di­ary insur­rec­tion against the entire post­colo­nial order, not just its Boute­fli­ka iteration.

Who stood against the pro­gres­sive poli­cies of Met­ro­pol­i­tan France? None oth­er than the colonists. In 1962, these colonists got what they, as a class, his­tor­i­cal­ly deserved. Out­lin­ing this does not make Alge­ri­ans blind to the fact that sev­er­al colonists open­ly sup­port­ed decol­o­niza­tion. The vio­lence dur­ing the rev­o­lu­tion set­tled scores; that vio­lence, as Frantz Fanon (1925–1961) bril­liant­ly puts it in The Wretched of the Earth, had puri­fy­ing effects in the sense that it enabled the human being in the col­o­nized to emerge. Recall that with Fanon as well as with the Fran­co-Tunisian schol­ar Albert Mem­mi (1920–2020), the col­o­nized is a strange com­bi­na­tion of defor­mi­ties. The col­o­nized had to kill the col­o­nized with­in him or her to join the realm of the human. Vio­lence, of the sort that took place dur­ing the Alger­ian rev­o­lu­tion­ary war (1954–1962) was, for Fanon, an unfor­tu­nate but nec­es­sary maneu­ver to allow the man in the col­o­nized to be born.

Regard­ing present Fran­co-Alger­ian rela­tions, they too can­not be stripped of con­text. Not all the crit­i­cisms one reads in the French media are accu­rate or inno­cent or not pro­pa­gan­da. It is not news that there exists bias in report­ing cor­rup­tion in Alge­ria. Many observers recall that the first peo­ple who brought to pub­lic atten­tion the over­pric­ing of the 1,200 km high­way in 2006 were the French media. Why? French com­pa­nies, like Amer­i­can, Japan­ese, and South Kore­an ones, made their bids. But the project was con­tract­ed by three large and state-owned Chi­nese con­struc­tion com­pa­nies and a Japan­ese one. Why? Sim­ply because Alger­ian bureau­crats did their job. They hand­ed the project to the low­est bid­der. But the ini­tial fund meant to cov­er the con­struc­tion was not enough, so the con­tract­ed com­pa­nies asked for what is legal­ly theirs. The high­way is not Germany’s Auto­bahn, but its cost is rea­son­able. And the deliv­ered infra­struc­ture is not bad, as is often report­ed. Sim­i­lar­ly, the French media become furi­ous when the author­i­ties hand­ed the con­tract for build­ing the largest dam in the Maghreb, that of Beni Haroun in 2001, to the Chi­nese. The con­tract was mouth­wa­ter­ing and soon the usu­al media fault-find­ing start­ed. Bouteflika’s reign has  been extreme­ly prob­lem­at­ic, but there remains a duty to be fair.

Big con­tracts for build­ing key infra­struc­ture, such as those out­lined above, are among a hand­ful of exam­ples of why ten­sions have always gov­erned the rela­tion­ship between inde­pen­dent Alge­ria and France. The cul­tur­al expla­na­tion, as pro­posed by the Alger­ian estab­lish­ment, often aims to jus­ti­fy, and rarely to explain. The ten­sion has deep roots in mate­r­i­al his­to­ry and the mean­ing of prim­i­tive accu­mu­la­tion. It is the ten­den­tial fall in the rate of prof­its (as spec­i­fied by Karl Marx in vol­ume three of Cap­i­tal) that oblig­es French com­pa­nies to com­pete against more vibrant Amer­i­can com­pa­nies for shares in Alger­ian mar­kets, which in turn cre­ates ten­sion.. The selec­tiv­i­ty in dis­cus­sion of cor­rup­tion seeks to cov­er that pub­lic offi­cials’ mis­han­dling of assets can­not sig­nif­i­cant­ly account for the con­tra­dic­tions that under­lie glob­al­iza­tion. The lat­ter has no pref­er­ence for one nation­al cap­i­tal — a sit­u­a­tion that gen­er­ates ten­sions among com­pet­ing cap­i­talisms mark­ing glob­al­iza­tion. To illus­trate, Algeria’s deci­sion to nation­al­ize its ener­gy sec­tor in Feb­ru­ary 1971 gave lever­age to Amer­i­can com­pa­nies at the expense of French ones. 

If one aims to address the sub­ter­ranean forces that shape Fran­co-Alger­ian rela­tions, one should con­sid­er the the­sis pro­posed by Gre­go­ry D. Cle­va in  John F. Kennedys 1957 Alge­ria Speech: The Pol­i­tics of Anti­colo­nial­ism in the Cold War Era (2022). The gist of Cleva’s book is that in the wake of that speech, a pat­tern was set for the rela­tion­ship not only between the US and Alge­ria or the US and France but between the Alger­ian and French estab­lish­ments. Leav­ing the ephemer­al (that which the French media deems news­wor­thy) and embrac­ing the essen­tial, JFK’s 1957 Alge­ria Speech is the way to go. Oth­er­wise, nei­ther staunch Alger­ian nation­al­ists nor large­ly nos­tal­gic French jour­nal­ists and aca­d­e­mics high­light, let alone address, the intri­cate web of con­nec­tions at play.

For many ordi­nary Alge­ri­ans, the FLN even­tu­al­ly won because it forced de Gaulle to accept nego­ti­a­tions. Under the car­pet, how­ev­er, lies the fact that by the time JFK made his speech, the Alger­ian rev­o­lu­tion had been mil­i­tar­i­ly defeat­ed. The French gen­er­als’ strat­e­gy to defeat the insur­rec­tion had borne fruit. And still, the rev­o­lu­tion, in the final analy­sis, got what it want­ed! Strange, isn’t it? This is because oth­er forces were work­ing against French pol­i­cy­mak­ers and in favor of the FLN, though not nec­es­sar­i­ly for the sake of the Alger­ian peo­ple. We read in Cleva’s account that Amer­i­can con­suls gen­er­al in Algiers serv­ing from 1942 to the late 1950s played key roles by report­ing the pit­falls of French colo­nial poli­cies. As a mem­ber of the Sen­ate Com­mit­tee on For­eign Rela­tions and thus a like­ly can­di­date for the pres­i­den­cy, JFK for­mal­ized what the Amer­i­can estab­lish­ment, up to that point, had always wanted. 

The U.S. did not emerge from WWII vic­to­ri­ous just like that. The world still remem­bers how Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump in Novem­ber 2018 react­ed to French Pres­i­dent Emmanuel Macron’s allu­sion to the need to cre­ate an inde­pen­dent Euro­pean army, a frame­work out­side NATO. Trump angri­ly retorts: “With­out the U.S. help in two world wars, today’s Parisians would be speak­ing Ger­man.” The point here is that while the French gen­er­als over­whelm­ing­ly suc­ceed­ed in sup­press­ing the insur­rec­tion in Alge­ria, French politi­cians could not cap­i­tal­ize on that suc­cess because Wash­ing­ton want­ed oth­er­wise. The US pushed a pol­i­cy of decol­o­niza­tion and not even Britain was immune. India, the jew­el of its empire, won its independence!

With his return to pow­er in 1958, le général (de Gaulle) tried his best to secure Alge­ria as French but even­tu­al­ly real­ized that his maneu­vers would amount to lit­tle more than show­man­ship. US geostrate­gic inter­ests want­ed an end to col­o­niza­tion, lest upheavals and insur­rec­tions in the colonies break the frag­ile new order. Decol­o­niza­tion as a pol­i­cy was meant to con­tain the col­o­nized, regard­less of the fact that, on the sur­face, it gave them bet­ter terms (though not the best) to nego­ti­ate their future eman­ci­pa­tion. For Indi­ans as much as for Alge­ri­ans or Kenyans, what hap­pened on the bat­tle­field was impor­tant, but inde­pen­dence was large­ly decid­ed elsewhere.

If lit­er­a­ture is but anoth­er means of chang­ing the world, not just an instan­ti­a­tion of the bour­geois hunt for the beau­ti­ful, then it is Yacine’s syn­the­sis of Alge­ri­ans’ rad­i­cal con­scious­ness that illu­mi­nates the way for con­tem­po­rary Alge­ri­ans to achieve a greater degree of emancipation.

This leaves us with an accu­rate pic­ture of how the French estab­lish­ment views Alge­ria today. France sees Alge­ria as a con­cu­bine that sim­ply decid­ed to exchange part­ners and go to bed with Wash­ing­ton. All oth­er approx­i­ma­tions to those rela­tions are meant to jus­ti­fy, nev­er to explain what the French estab­lish­ment to this day can­not over­come what it con­sid­ers as the impos­si­ble loss! But it is pre­cise­ly here where Alge­ri­ans pre­fer to over­look the Amer­i­can role and attribute vic­to­ry exclu­sive­ly to their fore­fa­thers’ sacrifices.

Speak­ing of the post-inde­pen­dent nation­al­ist nar­ra­tive brings us full cir­cle to why dis­cus­sions of Camus’s uni­ver­sal­ism or chau­vin­ism are ster­ile. They are so because they remain out­side space and time. They are meant to cov­er for the type of rea­son­ing that seeks to eter­nal­ize the present unjust order root­ed in exploita­tion and which decol­o­niza­tion has sought to restruc­ture into a high­er but still unjust order. Dif­fer­ent­ly put, Camus’s nar­ra­tive of the nation­al­ists and his moth­er is, quite sim­ply, false.

Speak­ing about the exact stakes of Euro­pean colonists leads us to learn about sub­al­tern Alge­ri­ans’ exact sakes in their coun­try. Any­one seri­ous about under­stand­ing dis­en­fran­chised Alge­ri­ans’ exact stakes should read Kateb Yacine (1929–1989) and his 1956 nov­el, Ned­j­ma. On the very first page of Ned­j­ma, one will see how Camus was out of touch with real­i­ty. That first page saves read­ers from that fog­gi­ness and makes them ful­ly reg­is­ter the class strug­gle. One will real­ize how acute Alge­ri­ans’ liv­ing con­di­tions were and how the con­scious­ness of the neces­si­ty of blood­shed man­i­fest­ed itself — not because Alge­ri­ans liked it, but because they were squeezed out of options. On that first page, Yacine cap­tures Alge­ri­ans’ logos, the reflec­tive con­scious­ness that looks at the abyss but is not afraid to tease it out and dis­till the sen­si­ble course of action. In con­sid­er­ing social class as a vec­tor for analy­sis, it becomes self-evi­dent that Camus does not even begin to com­pare with Yacine. If lit­er­a­ture is but anoth­er means of chang­ing the world, not just an instan­ti­a­tion of the bour­geois hunt for the beau­ti­ful, then it is Yacine’s syn­the­sis of Alge­ri­ans’ rad­i­cal con­scious­ness that illu­mi­nates the way for con­tem­po­rary Alge­ri­ans to achieve a greater degree of emancipation.

 

Notes

[1] Owen White, 2021. The Blood of the Colony: Wine and the Rise and Fall of French Alge­ria. Har­vard Uni­ver­si­ty Press. 

[2] “I have always denounced ter­ror­ism. I must also denounce ter­ror­ism which is exer­cised blind­ly, in the streets of Algiers for exam­ple, and which some­day could strike my moth­er or my fam­i­ly. I believe in jus­tice, but I shall defend my moth­er above jus­tice.” Her­bert R. Lottman, Camus, A Biog­ra­phy (1979)

[3] Lit­er­al­ly, “con­grat­u­la­tions to you Moham­mad; Alge­ria is back to you again!” or con­sid­er this large­ly for­got­ten one now “Fransa mel­lat” by Cheikh Bouregaa.

 

Albert CamusAlgeriaAlgierscolonizationFranceFrantz FanonKateb Yacine

Fouad Mami is a literature scholar from Algeria. An Africanist by training, his field of interest lies at the crossroads between North and West African along with the larger Mediterranean literatures and arts. Over the last few years, he has published not a small number of essays with some reputable journals such as Postcolonial Studies, The Journal of North African Studies, Mediterranean Politics among others.