Algeria: 50 Years on Still a Burning Issue

There is uproar in the neighbouring villages of Samatan and Lombez (Gers) in the Pyrénées foothills, over one man’s plans to ‘celebrate’ the 50th anniversary of the end of the Algerian conflict.

Battle of Algiers (1957)

The wounds of the Algerian war are not yet healed – Image via Wikipedia

(Read more online)
For, half a century after a cease fire ended the Algerian War and brought down France’s Fourth Republic, feelings still run high among the descendants of the one million returnees from the former north African colony.

Alain Lopez, described by his detractors in the Rue 89 report on the row as “someone who has his own ideas – and very leftwing”, clearly did not reckon on the wave of national agitation his seemingly innocuous couscous evening planned for February 25, would cause.

So much anger and hate has filled the air since the initiative was announced, that local mayors, one a socialist, the other a member of a radical left party decided it would be best to rescind permission to use local village halls for the planned ‘celebration’ comprising a couscous evening, a debate on the war, and a screening of the Algerian-themed “El Gusto” film.

Lots of discord in Gers over el Gusto (Scene is a shot from the film)

Alain Lopez, organiser of the controversial event, deplores the ‘censorship’ now being imposed. Born in the Hauts Plateaux algériens or Algerian Highlands he became a farmer in the Gers, “like many Pieds-Noirs (or French citizens who lived in French Algeria before independence and who accounted for 1,400,000 people, or roughly 13 percent of the total population), whom the government of the day directed to this département because it had become depopulated.”

He is now retired and has spent recent weeks organising his “celebration of the 50th anniversary of the end of the war in Algeria” which according to pamphlets distributed in the village would include a “debate”, with members of the 4ACG association (Algerian Veterans and their friends against the war); couscous in the hall; followed by a screening of El Gusto a film written and directed by Bousbia Safinez. (The film characterises popular music invented in the mid-1920s in the heart of the Algiers Kasbah by the great musician of the time, El Anka and released January 11, 2012.)

However as soon as the event was announced, the peace of the village was shattered.” Dozens and dozens if not hundreds of protest e-mails, arrived at my town hall,” says Pierre Chaze, the Socialist mayor of Samatan.

They came from “members of returnee associations, Pieds Noirs, and Harkis all shocked by the one word: “celebration”. (Harkis is the generic term for Muslim Algerians who served as auxiliaries in the French Army during the Algerian War and now used to designate repatriated French Muslims living in the country since 1962, and their metropolitan-born descendants).

“For us,” Lionel Diaz-Vives, a Spanish teacher and a spokeman for pied-noir associations told Rue 89, “this 50 years is 50 years of exodus. A million French returned (from Algeria) with nothing. 150,000 harkis were massacred. You cannot have a celebration about that,” he said.

Son of an Algerian returnee family Lionel Vivès Diaz is leading the Gers protest

This story, however, is not his. It is that of his parents. For Lionel Diaz-Vives was born in France in 1964 and, says the highly critical Rue 89 report, he looks “like a man open to suffering, very aware of the ‘open wound’ of the returnees from Algeria and a man who employs the word ‘pain’ emphatically”.

Lionel Diaz-Vives (read here for more about the association ) is not a man to mince his words. As a key opponent of the “festive couscous”, he criticised what he called the “pseudo-debate” with speakers from an association (4ACG) whom he called “apologists for military deserters or those who aided the FLN, those who fought against their own side and those who applauded the Manifesto of the 121”.

(Note: the FLN was the acronym of the then Algerian independence movement. The ‘Manifesto of the 121’ was drawn up by “a group of French communist intellectuals critical of ‘France’s equivocation over the Algerian liberation movement and supportive of an ‘oppressed Algerian population’ seeking recognition as an independent community”).

Not soon after this blast of anger, mayor Pierre Chaze got wind of a proposed nation-wide demonstration against the coucous celebration and furthermore that villagers were making it known they were “ready to defend the village war memorial. It all began to take on insane proportions and to threaten public order” he said. The mayor  contacted the local prefecture who reminded him that “responsibility for public safety, is mine. I did not want any fighting, so I rescinded permission to use the village hall for the event.”

Similar pressures and the same reactions to the event were echoed in neighbouring Lombez , where Alain Lopez planned to move his couscous celebration. “There could have been upheavals and much unpleasantness. On both sides these people are very passionate, very certain of the truth,” the PRG mayor, Jean Loubon explained, adding that “people had very different views of this war. It is both too close and too far to us all”.

His Samatan counterpart concurred, adding that “even today 50 years later, this war is not yet consigned to history”.

The returnees from French Algeria objecting to the event, insist that Alain Lopez was being deliberately provocative.  Lopez claimed that he may have handled the planned affair clumsily but, pointing to a huge pile of bile heaped on him in letters and emails he sighed: “These people have chickpeas for brains, they stopped the clocks in 1962. You really cannot argue with them.”

That is one view but as the Al Jazeera video clip below shows there were and are many strands to this bitter war. Relations between France and Algeria remain deeply marked by the conflict and its aftermath while anger among the descendants of returnees in France from all sides in the conflict, continues to rankle.

Further reading

There is an interesting analysis of current Algerian issues on the Arunwithaview blog – Algeria, 26 December 1991. Given that allegations of  ‘genocide’ were an unresolved issue during the 1954-1962 Algerian War, readers might also be interested in an series of  critical blogs by French academic Arun Kapil on France’s move to pass a law about Turkey and the Armenian genocide: France & Turkey: the empires strike back? and Franco-Turkish follies – II

Story: Ken Pottinger

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