Next Sunday, the 18th of March, will mark fifty years since the Algerian war was brought to an end by the Evian Accords. Signed by Charles de Gaulle’s government and the Front de Liberation National’s (FLN) leadership, the accords paved the way for a referendum on full Algerian independence from France on the 5thJuly 1962.
Yet even today in France there exists an unspoken taboo around the topic of the 1954-1962 Algerian war. Many French people of that generation remember the turmoil the conflict engendered and they recall how close France came to a coup-d’état as a consequence. It is no surprise therefore – especially in an election year – that France will neither officially commemorate nor mention the end of this war.
France’s silence raises the question of whether, fifty years on, it truly has been able to come to terms with its colonial conflict. Twenty to thirty years ago, the taboo and silence surrounding the Algerian War was even greater. So great was this taboo in fact, that Gillo Pontecorvo’s legendary film “Battle for Algiers” was banned in France for over five years, despite its fairly even-handed portrayal of French soldiers and Algerian fighters.
Successive French governments maintained a silence over this period of French history and the population mutely acquiesced. Algeria’s War of Independence became a forgotten war, one rarely officially mentioned and always in briefest terms when it was. Mainstream education in France seldom touched the subject and certainly did not mention the allegations of torture or extra-judicial murder dogging France’s time in Algeria.
Today, many French people know about the Algerian war through films, documentaries and books; higher profile has also been given to the conflict with authors such as Benjamin Stora making its history more accessible and less biased. In preparation for the fifty year anniversary French television screened a discreet few documentaries about the Algerian War and even a panel discussion. There was, however, neither razzmatazz nor fanfare; it was a discreet and quiet affair.
Is this harmful? Well in terms of historical memory, not really. The Algerian conflict is already recognized throughout the world as the divisive and bloody war it was. Even in France the common consensus is that it was a regrettable and savage undertaking. As the older generation is replaced by the younger one, the taboo is being steadily lifted and the truth is gaining ground.
All nations have distasteful episodes in their past. Yet, many have chosen to come to terms with their history and, occasionally, atone. Algeria’s colonization plays an undeniable role in France’s post-World War II national narrative. France’s atonement has been slow and by gradual increments, largely unofficial in scope. It took, for example, over forty years to erect a national memorial to French deaths of the conflict. Even then the memorial is stark and situated in an out of the way location in Paris. Arguably, it is reflective of France’s discomfort with the issue of Algeria and its independence.
Taking all this into account, it is hardly surprising that although the French have become more open to discussing the Algerian war, it has certainly not fully lifted the taboo. On the 5thof July Algeria will celebrate fifty years of independence from French rule, with events held across the country. In France there will be no official commemoration of this half-forgotten war, and certainly there will be no party in Paris.