National Security & Defense

In the French Presidential Election, the Algerian War Looms Large

Emmanuel Macron speaks at a May Day rally in Paris. (Reuters photo: Benoit tessier)
Scars from the Algerian conflict still divide the French as a presidential runoff approaches.

At a May Day rally on Monday, French presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron paid tribute to a Moroccan man who was pushed into the Seine and drowned during a National Front rally 22 years ago. Macron, who is headed to a runoff presidential election with far-right candidate Marine Le Pen on Sunday, was trying to highlight the National Front’s problematic views of North African immigrants. Ever since the first round of the election, he’s been aiming to shake up his countrymen and bring them to a reconciliation with the past, most notably with the Algerian War.

Macron’s commemoration of the drowned Moroccan man is a reminder that Le Pen’s National Front party is rooted in France’s tortured history with North Africa, and that the broad contours of this year’s presidential election have deep roots in the collective French psyche. Although much of the campaigning and commentary has focused on France’s role in the European Union and the stagnant French economy, the choice between Macron and Le Pen is in effect a choice between two versions of France and French history.

To understand why, some historical context is in order. Many of the nationalists who founded the National Front in 1972, including Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, had been involved in the Algerian War of Independence in the 1950s and ’60s. Some fought for the French army. Others were “pieds noirs,” a term (meaning “black feet”) that referred to Christian and Jewish French nationals who had been living in French Algeria for decades, some for generations.

During the Algerian War, both the French army in Algeria and the pieds noirs felt abandoned by the French government. They felt that France’s leaders under the Fourth Republic were more worried about politics than about giving the military the necessary support to suppress the Algerian rebellion. They viewed Algeria as a part of France that they couldn’t imagine giving up. Both groups wanted a government in Paris that would fight to hold on to France’s most prized colony.

The tension culminated in May 1958, when the French army in Algeria took the island of Corsica in a bloodless coup and was preparing to invade Paris if Charles de Gaulle was not brought back to lead and unify France, including French Algeria. Just hours before the planned coup, de Gaulle came out of retirement, bringing the crisis to an end. When de Gaulle gave up Algeria four years later in the Evian Accords, the sense of betrayal in the army and among the pieds noirs was acute.

At the time, Jean-Marie Le Pen was a lieutenant in the French army in Algeria, a volunteer. After the war he formed the National Front with a former member of the Secret Army Organization (OAS) as well as former Nazi collaborators and neo-Nazis. The OAS was a French paramilitary group that had formed in 1961 after the first referendum on Algerian independence was called by de Gaulle. The group carried out bombings and assassinations in France and French Algeria in an effort to keep Algeria part of France. After the Evian Accords were signed, the OAS tried to assassinate de Gaulle.

Within the first few months of Algerian independence, more than a million pieds noirs fled to France, understandably fearing retribution from the new Algerian government. But the pieds noirs weren’t welcomed into France with open arms. They were blamed for the brutal war in Algeria that had cost so many lives, even as the pieds noirs felt themselves to be victims of the war, forced to abandon their home. They were also culturally alienated, considered foreign and un-French by mainland Frenchmen. Indeed, many pieds noirs families had never even been to France.

Within the first few months of Algerian independence, more than a million ‘pieds noirs’ fled to France, understandably fearing retribution from the new Algerian government.

These pieds noirs settled primarily in the south of France, where the National Front’s core of support is located to this day. They concentrated in places like the Hérault department, where Marine Le Pen won in the first round of the presidential elections on April 23. This region has sometimes been called the Rust Belt of France because of the devastating economic downturn that began there in the 1970s. Places like Sète and Béziers, which have among the highest rates of unemployment in France and a large, mostly unassimilated North African community, went to Le Pen. Her message that immigration is at the root of the country’s economic woes resonates powerfully in a part of the country that has had a deeply fraught relationship with immigration for 50 years.

But it’s not just the frontistes who have struggled to shake off the Algerian War and the loss of France’s colonial holdings. France as a whole has never completely gotten over the bitterness of that war. While the pieds noirs and many of their descendants feel themselves to be victims, others want simply to forget the war out of shame, and perhaps even a sense that France had no other choice — a common refrain for justifying collaboration with the Nazis.

The realities of the Algerian war came home to France in 1961, when 30,000 Algerians marched in Paris in support of the National Liberation Front, the nationalist movement fighting for Algerian independence. At the rally, the French National Police attacked demonstrators, killing dozens (estimates range from around 40 to as many as 200), and later pulling bodies from the Seine. After the massacre, someone scrawled on the Saint-Michel Bridge “Ici on noie les Algériens” (Here we drown Algerians).

These memories and the bitterness that they engender still persist today. No one was ever prosecuted for the murders, and it wasn’t until 2001 that Paris officially acknowledged the massacre by placing a plaque on the Saint-Michel Bridge. Incredibly, the plaque was protested by French politicians and the police union. It wasn’t until 2012 that the massacre was officially recognized by the French government, under François Hollande.

I was living in France in 2012, during the 50th anniversary of the Evian Accords and the French referendum on Algerian independence. Even though the referendum was approved by 91 percent of the voters in 1962, the French people 50 years later could barely bring themselves to commemorate the occasion. There was only quiet acknowledgment of the anniversary in a few media outlets. I recall listening to a French news radio channel that beamed with pride in reporting that it, unlike most other stations, was actually covering the anniversary. And yet the station’s reporting consisted mainly of meta-commentary on its own coverage.

The National Front mayor of Béziers, Robert Ménard, flew the French flag at half-staff that day and said that celebrating the anniversary “is an insult to the memory of the pieds noirs and the harkis [Algerians who fought for the French army], of whom 100,000 were massacred after the Evian Accords.” Ménard, an ally of Le Pen, was fined last month by a Paris court for inciting hatred after he declared that there were too many Muslim children in local schools.

In 2012, I was teaching at the Université de Montpellier–Paul Valéry in Hérault and had several students of North African descent in my classes. Many of them still had immediate family members in the Maghreb. I knew that bringing up Algeria was a very touchy topic among other professors (a fellow American teacher had given me the heads-up), but I was curious to see what would happen if I mentioned it to my students.

Fillon criticized Macron for making a comparison to ‘real’ crimes against humanity such as genocide and slavery.

We were discussing an American novel set during the Vietnam War, and I wanted to conjure up for them the sense of a war that is lodged firmly in a nation’s conscience. So I said that the Vietnam War for Americans might be like the Algerian War for the French (noting, of course, the manifest differences). I remember the look of utter shock on the faces of my two male 20-year-old French-Algerian students. Their jaws dropped and they looked at one another in disbelief. They could not believe that someone, a teacher no less, was acknowledging the Algerian War in a semi-official setting. I went on as though nothing had happened, but I could tell that I had done something far outside the norm.

So imagine the waves Macron caused in February when he said France needed to apologize for its offenses in Algeria, and then told the right-leaning Le Figaro that, in its colonization of Algeria, France committed “crimes and acts of barbarism” that today would be considered “crimes against humanity.” His comments sparked controversy and anger across France — and not just from the far right. Fellow candidate François Fillon criticized Macron for making a comparison to “real” crimes against humanity, such as genocide and slavery. Macron was forced to give a quasi-apology, saying, “I am sorry to have offended you, to have hurt you. . . . But we must face this common, complex past if we want to move on and get along.”

Macron is right. It’s because France hasn’t grappled with its past or found a way to relieve this pressure that the problems engendered by the Algerian War have festered in France’s collective consciousness and bubbled over in the form of the National Front. Decades of lax immigration policy and almost no official efforts to assimilate new arrivals have only made these problems worse. Marine Le Pen has tried, with some success, to transform her father’s party into an anti-EU populist movement focused on national solidarity and immigration reform. On the surface, the National Front is no longer just a political movement for the scarred pieds noirs and embittered veterans of the Algerian War, and yet it can still tap into the national trauma of that conflict and all that came after.

Many French voters, while not part of Le Pen’s base, still find that her message resonates. The question is, what will they do in the second round of voting this Sunday? Macron wants them to confront the past and move on. Le Pen is telling them not just to hold on to their grievances, but that those grievances, now more than ever, should be a source of national pride — and guide them into the future.

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