A barricade and banner with “Long live French Algeria”: Algiers; January, 1960

France’s unspoken, unfinished civil war

France’s cycle of social unrest and politically polarised elections has its roots in the Algerian conflict


This article is taken from the July 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

It is summer now and France is a fairyland of sunlight. But everywhere they look, the French see only their own shadow. 

Where does it come from, this little flicker of gloom that follows the French even when their days are long, their evenings warm, the sky empty and blue? For many years the shadow was a taboo that few of them would talk about, even though each could see its reach in their families, communities and politics. Marine Le Pen is its heir; Éric Zemmour is its orphan. The shadow is Algeria — and an unspoken, unbroken, unfinished civil war which for 70 years has bound the French to a place that most of them do not even know. The war gave France the Fifth Republic, the framework for its government today. Unless this war is finally ended, the Republic can never move forward. The success of Macron’s presidency depends on it.

France is a sombre tribe held together by its own mysterious internal logic

On the evening of his re-election, Macron said: “I will be President for all of us”. But Macron was backed by only 38 per cent of the electorate, making him the lowest supported President of the Fifth Republic. Much of his vote came from urban areas, while Le Pen’s came from the countryside. White collar workers leant towards him, blue collars towards her, mirroring similar patterns in numerous other countries and political contexts. June’s legislative elections echoed these divisions, with Le Pen’s Rassemblement National and Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s left-wing alliance winning enough votes to deny Macron a majority in the National Assembly.

These divisions are familiar enough to us now to have become banal. Yet hidden within their banality is a secret history unique to each context — and within that history, the taboos and truth that make one tribe different from another.

France is a sombre tribe held together by its own mysterious internal logic, utterly impenetrable to the outsider and often opaque even to the French themselves. This logic moves in slow, seasonal cycles: during the long summer months, a period of quiet and apparent contentment descends on the baked cities and brimming countryside, followed by sudden, shocking acts of collective violence in winter. The farmers strike, setting fire to piles of rubber tyres on main roads. The gilets jaunes turn up in Paris and start to pull up the paving stones. They are beaten back by the police. In the banlieues, kids set cars alight. Then suddenly it is over, and spring comes around again.

Elections in France and the regular ritual of giving performative votes for the far right are a political continuation of this cycle. Most people believe that Le Pen will never be president, just as they know that the gilets jaunes will never succeed in storming Macron’s palace and turning it into the new Bastille. But within the French internal logic, this impossibility does not matter. The symbolism of the outburst is sufficient — and necessary — for the quiet summer months to happen. 

The violence is, to use René Girard’s words, a respite, a short moment of intense transgression that brings the tribe together around its own unfathomable purpose. For peace to be possible, a sacrifice must be made. The French Republic is made a scapegoat for the survival of France.

This is the mystery at the heart of the French paradox: it is a country that is both revolutionary and deeply conservative at the same time, both ungovernable and technocratic, a country where the Republic never really took hold and therefore has had to sustain itself in the symbolism of administrative order. It is a country of equality but not integration.

Algeria was an integral part of France.

The result is this: in 2017, Macron said that by the end of his first term there would be no more reason to vote for extremes. It was a shallow claim to make. This last election has seen a rerun of the same contest between a member of the Le Pen family and a mainstream incumbent that we have seen in three of the past five elections. It is possible that we shall see the same thing happen in five years’ time between Macron’s successor and Marion Maréchal Le Pen. 

Viewed through the prism of history, this cycle of performance and paradox can never be broken because the cause of it has never been truly recognised. It is a taboo, a secret history of the long struggle over the soul of France between republicanism and nationalism which has been marked by over a century of grim milestones — Dreyfus, Vichy, Dien Bien Phu — and which reached its denouement in Algeria.

When the war began in 1954, Algeria was an integral part of France. Unlike the colonised territories of Indochina and North Africa, Algeria was, in the words of the Franco-Algerian philosopher Seloua Luste Boulbina, the exception which confirmed the rule: a “special colony precisely because it was not integrated in the colonies. It was a colony that was France” — a principle echoed by Mitterrand when, as Interior Minister, he addressed the Assemblée Nationale and said that “Algeria is France. And who among you, ladies and gentlemen, would hesitate to use all the means you have in order to preserve France?”

This Algeria was a France of the imagination as well as administration. The bottle of Orangina you see on the terrace table outside your favourite Parisian café? It was created as Naranjina in French Algeria in the 1930s. And the book by Camus that sits beside it? Like many other titans of French philosophy, including Louis Althusser, Jacques Derrida and Bernard-Henri Levy, he was born in Algeria. Many of these figures had Jewish roots. As does Eric Zemmour, the “Arab Jew” (as the historian Benjamin Stora called him) whose family came from Sétif, the scene of infamous massacres in 1945 which some historians have called the true start of the war for independence.

The Mediterranean joined these two lands together. At its shores stood Marseille and Algiers. Much of the construction of Algiers was done under the direction of Frédéric Chassériau, the former chief architect of Marseille. Both cities are crowned with basilicas built at the same time in a similar neo-Byzantine style: Notre Dame de la Garde in Marseille and Notre Dame d’Afrique in Algiers. To the locals, these two churches are known as la Bonne Mere and Madame L’Afrique, sisters of the twin cities. 

This is the moment of rupture, when loyalists turn against the country to which they say they are loyal

These two cities were also made twins through the war. It was a gruesome conflict, where the fight over independence and occupation was defined by atrocities: communities destroyed, women raped, neighbours lynched in the streets. In France, the war brought together different factions under a single banner. In the words of the historian James Shields, it became a recruiting ground not only for serving soldiers and army veterans but also colonial settlers, Catholic ultras and anti-Communists, as well as nostalgists who hankered for the old xenophobic hierarchy of Vichy and Maréchal Pétain, and who came together as the Organisation de l’Armée Secrète — a “Secret Army Organisation” led by one of France’s most revered generals, Raoul Salan. At the core was a well-heeled group including Alain de Bougrenet de la Tocnaye and Baron Louis Honorat de Condé, both of whom were involved in the attempted assignation of de Gaulle at Petit Clamart. 

Years later, la Tocnaye’s son would grow up to become a politician in Jean-Marie Le Pen’s Front National, and Louis de Condé became part of the Front National’s central committee. Le Pen himself inherited a chateau in the wealthy Paris suburb of Saint Cloud, left to him by the heir of an industrial fortune. The chateau’s rooms are filled with gilded furniture and little objets d’art, among which is a cast of the skull of Sante Geronimo Caserio, the Italian anarchist who in 1894 stabbed to death the President of France.

This is the moment of rupture, when loyalists turn against the country to which they say they are loyal. Charles de Gaulle’s return to power was seen by the traditionalists as a resolution to the Algerian question in their favour. The army considered him to be one of their own when he stood in his general’s uniform on a balcony in Algiers and told the cheering crowds who filled the Place du Forum, “Je vous ai compris!” — I have understood you! “From now on, France considers there to be only one type of inhabitant throughout Algeria: there are only French! Vive l’Algérie française!” Yet four years later, de Gaulle signed the Évian Accords and put into place a ceasefire between Paris and the National Liberation Front (FLN), paving the way for a referendum on Algerian independence. 

Over a century of French Algeria was no more. The traditionalists were stunned by what they saw as a betrayal. Paris sent troops from the mainland to Algeria to monitor the population of ethnic Europeans, the pieds-noirs, many of whom were increasingly viewed as rebels against their own government. When the pieds-noirs marched in demonstration towards Algiers’ main post office on the rue d’Isly, troops conscripted from the mainland opened fire on them: French soldiers shooting at French citizens in a city in North Africa. 

This story is essential to understanding the inner dynamics of French elections today. Realising that they faced a choice between saving either their lives or their homes (“to choose”, they said, “the suitcase over the coffin”), the pieds-noirs were forced into a mass exodus out of Algeria alongside the Arab Harkis who had fought for the French government and were now considered traitors by their fellow Algerians. 

Macron’s way of soothing these wounds is to make symbolic gestures of reconciliation

Almost one million people were ferried across the Mediterranean during the Summer of 1962 to begin an uncertain new life in France. Almost all of them landed in Marseille, with many ending up in bleak compounds like the Camp du Grand Arénas in a rocky valley south of the city. From these camps, the pied-noir community spread throughout the south of France. So too did the new arrivals of Arab immigrants. It is no accident that the number of votes for Zemmour this year polled higher in the South of France than any other region. In many ways, the Côte d’Azur is the last battleground of the Algerian War.

When he won re-election, Macron said to the people “I have understood you”, just like de Gaulle once did on the balcony in Algiers. But like de Gaulle, Macron has the same inclination to project this understanding onto the international stage, rather than focus it on more mundane matters at home. Macron is far more suited to the role of an American-style Secretary of State than that of a president of a country which has a tendency to turn inwards at times of crisis. Yet, in France, the foreign and the domestic are inseparable. 

In 2017, when making an official visit to Algeria, Macron said that he would not be a “hostage of history”, but hostage he remains. When Le Monde reported in 2021 that he had questioned the existence of Algerian nationhood before French colonial rule, Algiers recalled its ambassador and banned French military flights from using its airspace in the operation against jihadists in the Sahel. The Algerian President, Abdelmadjid Tebboune, said that Macron had hurt the dignity of Algerians and, according to Der Spiegel, refused to take Macron’s calls.

Macron’s way of soothing these wounds is to make symbolic gestures of reconciliation, apologising for past-misdeeds that the French state perpetrated on pieds-noirs, Harkis and Algerian independence fighters alike. 

Many of these gestures are taken from recommendations in the Macron-commissioned Stora Report which was written by the Algerian-born French historian, Benjamin Stora, to further “memory, truth and reconciliation”. They come with promises of greater French investment in Algeria but risk being reduced to what Stora himself calls a “brief inventory of initiatives”.

But what of the structures that led to war in the first place and remain unresolved today, in particular the constitutional framework of the Fifth Republic that de Gaulle created in 1958 in response to the Algerian crisis? Carrying on from where Jean-Marie Le Pen commenced, both Marine Le Pen and her niece, Marion Maréchal Le Pen, believe it is not fit for purpose. In this the radical socialist presidential contender, Jean-Luc Mélenchon (born in French North Africa), agrees, calling the Fifth Republic “a Constitution which is dated, designed by one man, General de Gaulle, who died 52 years ago, for circumstances which are obsolete and for a country — the France of 1958 — which has completely changed”.

For all their other differences, each of these politicians understand that the endless cycle of paradox and performative acts which has defined French politics for the past 20 years must end if their country is to move beyond its shadow. Having, this June, lost his majority in the Assemblée Nationale, only Macron knows if he is now brave enough to put the continuation of that 1958 constitution to the people. 

If, instead, he continues to hide behind the symbolism of change, the signs are clear: soon the summer will be over, the tables will be cleared from the terraces and the swallows will disappear, the autumn rains will come and then the people will be back on the streets again, protesting, shouting, breaking — yet not fully aware of why they are doing it. 

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